How to support members who self-harm

Self-harm is more common than many people realise, and it affects a lot of young people.

If you find yourself needing to support someone who is self-harming, it can feel difficult. You might not be confident about what you should do or feel uncertain about what to do or say.

Our guidance will help you feel better equipped to support someone who self-harms.

Remember the Safeguarding team at HQ is always here to help you. It’s important that you report any concerns you have about self-harm or disclosures you’re made aware of to our Safeguarding team.

The Girlguiding wellbeing action plan can be a useful way of supporting members who self-harm or experience mental health difficulties.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when a person deliberately hurts themself as a way of dealing with difficult thoughts, experiences, and feelings. It describes any way in which someone might injure themself or put themself at risk.

Self-harm can affect anyone, no matter their background or identity. There is no one typical person who self-harms.

Why do people self-harm?

There’s not one reason that explains why people self-harm, it can be complex, varied and very individual. And sometimes it can be hard to make sense of.

It’s important that we don’t ever label self-harm as “attention seeking behaviour”. Instead remember that self-harming can mean that the person is suffering from intense emotional distress or trying to cope with difficult experiences.

Self-harm is linked to mental health difficulties, such as anxiety and depression. Read more about mental health conditions.

If someone is self-harming, it does not always mean they feel suicidal, although self-harm is a big risk factor to suicide. It’s important that you raise concerns as soon as possible with the Safeguarding team.

Potential signs of self-harm

As members of Girlguiding, you might be in situations at meetings, trips and events where you spot injuries or signs of self-harm. Here are some signs and behaviours that can indicate that someone is hurting themselves.

  • Cuts, bruises, burns, or loss of hair/eyelashes that can’t be explained when asked
  • Wearing long or baggy clothes to cover arms and legs when it doesn’t match the weather
  • Signs of overall poor mental health such depression or high levels of anxiety
  • Changes to behaviour like becoming withdrawn, not wanting to speak to others, secrecy or disappearing at times of high emotion
  • Increasing isolation or unwillingness to engage
  • Avoiding changing clothes or undressing in front of others
  • Signs of low self-esteem, for example, speaking about not being good enough or worthless, or self-blaming
  • Expressing self-loathing or wanting to punish themself
  • Expressing suicidal thoughts or saying they don’t want to live anymore

These signs do not always mean that someone is self-harming. Some people might not show any of the signs on this list. But do look out for behaviour changes and other indications that might be cause for concern.

Types of self-harm

Self-harm doesn’t always involve visible wounds. Some types can be harder to spot. Acts of self-harm could include:

  • Cutting, scratching, biting, picking, or burning skin
  • Punching or hitting themself
  • Excessive hair pulling or plucking
  • Poisoning, for example with tablets or liquids
  • Over-eating or under-eating
  • Overdosing on tablets or medication
  • Exercising too much
  • Inserting objects into the body
  • Deliberately getting into fights or dangerous situations to get hurt

These are examples of possible harms, but it does not include every possible form of self-harm, there might be other ways that people choose to hurt themselves.

What do you do if you’re worried someone is self-harming?

If you think someone might be self-harming, or you are told that they are, it can be hard to know what do to. And how you approach the situation, including what you say to them, will depend on their age.

If you suspect that someone is self-harming but are not sure, the first thing to do is to contact the Safeguarding Team at HQ. They are available to support and guide you. You can talk through your worries and together decide what further action is needed.

If it’s an emergency situation and someone is injured, contact the emergency services and administer first aid before you do anything else.

In a situation where a young person tells you that they are self-harming, or you feel very certain that they are, then in most cases you should talk to their parent or carer. However, if you have any concerns about this or think it might put the child at more risk, talk to the Safeguarding team before taking any action.

Click to read our guidance for each age group.

Due to the young age of the girls in Rainbows you find that asking directly but casually about anything that worries you can help you get more information. For example, during an activity, discreetly saying “That’s a lovely picture you’ve drawn, you’re doing really well with this! I’ve noticed those scratches on your arm, they look sore, what happened?” Their response will help you judge if this is something to be concerned about.

It’s then best to take any concerns straight to their parent or carer. They might already be aware of these signs or behaviour and have acted themselves. A referral may have already been made or an intervention be in place. Once you have spoken to them, contact the Safeguarding team who can share local and national resources that can help support you and the family. If you are concerned about the way that family have reacted or have handled the situation, then share this with the Safeguarding team at HQ. 

For this age group, you should use what you know about the child and your relationship with them to decide who to speak to first. If you feel able, you could speak to the young person first, or you might go directly to their parents or carers.

As with all concerns, if you are unsure, you can speak to the Safeguarding team first for advice. If you speak to the young member about the self-harming, you’ll need to let them know that you have a duty to inform their parent or carer of your concerns. Then they can decide if they want to join you for that conversation or choose not to be present.

Following the conversation with the parents/carers, contact the Safeguarding team who can provide support and guidance.

As girls in Rangers are older, we recommend you have the initial conversation with the girl first, if you have a good relationship with her and feel able to do this. You can then assess whether her parents or carers know about the situation. If you are in Scotland and the Ranger is 16 or over, remember you’ll need permission from the girl before you can talk to her parents or carers. We should encourage the Ranger to speak to her parents/carers herself. But if you are not sure that she will, or are worried, our Safeguarding team can talk it through with you. After speaking to the young member or parents/carers, contact the Safeguarding team for more support and guidance.

Self-harm does not only affect young people. If you have a concern about another volunteer, then start by contacting the Safeguarding team. They can share resources with you and help you decide how to approach a conversation with the volunteer if that’s what you want to do. The Safeguarding team will also consider if there are potential implications for safeguarding and if further steps need to be taken, for example if an adult support plan needs to be put in place.

Be prepared that when you ask an adult about their self-harming, they might not appreciate the questions or want to talk to you. But by raising the subject with them, you’re letting them know that support is available as well as fulfilling your responsibilities to safeguard the young members within the unit.

Talking to someone about self-harm

If you do want to approach someone and have a supportive conservation about what you’ve noticed, and they are a suitable age for this, consider these helpful tips:

  • Remember this is not an allegation, so don’t treat the conversation like an interview. Be supportive and spend more time listening than talking
  • Try not to panic, overreact, be judgmental or make assumptions. You might be worried but remember that the way you react is going to affect the person
  • Validate their feelings. Try to acknowledge how difficult this must be to talk about
  • Be careful about discouraging self-harm or telling them they need to stop. This can add to the guilt and negative feelings they might already be feeling
  • Use open questions so you can find out more context from the person’s own words. Self-harm is often part of a bigger overall picture
  • It’s important not to label or dismiss self-harm as “attention seeking”. Your conversation with them could be their first step of a very difficult journey to recovery
  • Have empathy and understanding. Let them know you’re there for them, this can help them with the anxiety about talking about their self-harm
  • Be supportive, but not pushy. Empower them to have control over their own decisions
  • Respond calmly and clearly identify next steps. Do not make unrealistic promises about confidentiality. Acknowledge how difficult this conversation must have been and follow up with your next steps promptly, including informing the Safeguarding Team so that relevant support and guidance can be given

If you’re on a trip or residential and you notice signs of past self-harm, contact the Safeguarding Team, on the out of hours phone if needed. You can talk to a safeguarding practitioner and together plan for how to respond.

If it’s not possible to talk to our team, then think about the persons current mental health and wellbeing so you can assess the risk of them self-harming on the trip.

Follow the guidance above on having conversations and put appropriate safety measures in place, then call the Safeguarding Team as soon as possible for advice.

If you cannot reach the safeguarding team, here are some things to consider as you carry out a dynamic risk assessment:

  • Consider what triggers the self-harm. If it’s appropriate, you can talk to the person and see if they can recognise their triggers. You’ll need to then consider how you can manage this
  • Explore their methods of self-harm. How do they do it and what do they use? Do they have access to these methods on the trip? If they do, we advise you to remove any items or medication that can be used to cause self-harm
  • Consider how their emotional state has been on the trip. Have you noticed any differences?
  • Talk to them about coping mechanisms, what helps her when she is feeling low? Is there someone she can talk to when she feels like self-harming? Is there something she can do which distracts her?
  • Think about the impact on the other members, what could they be exposed to? Do they need any support? Could this be triggering for anyone else?
  • Is the member on any medication? Have they been taking it correctly? Who has the medication? Is it being stored safely?

It could be helpful to include parents or carers as you do this, as they may be able to identify triggers and coping mechanisms.

If someone harms themselves on a residential then your priority is getting them medical attention or providing first aid. You’ll also need to carry out a risk assessment and contact their parents/carer to let them know what has happened.

If at any point you feel that the person is a danger to themselves or anyone else, then immediately call the emergency services. Then when you can, call the Safeguarding team at HQ to make them aware of the situation. They can help you assess the risks and give you useful advice and signposting to support. If the parents or carers give permission, then the Safeguarding team can make referrals to relevant services.

If you know, before you go away, that a member struggles with self-harm then you need to contact the Safeguarding team. They can help you to risk assess the likelihood of them self-harming whilst away on the residential. Then you can work on an inclusion adjustment plan and a dynamic risk assessment plan.

You should agree in advance on roles and responsibilities, for example, who will look after the young member in a self-harm incident and who will look after the rest of the group, who will contact the parents or carers?

It’s important to consider the country you’re visiting and how they might approach self-harm there. This could increase or decrease the risk. For information this check the government advice on foreign travel for those with mental health issues.

We understand this is a big responsibility to take on, so if you need to another volunteer to manage this as their sole responsibility, we can look at providing a reasonable adjustment.

Most travel insurance policies do not cover self-harm. So they would not pay the medical bill for someone attending hospital because of a self-harm injury. The financial impact of this needs to be taken into consideration and should be discussed with the Safeguarding Team who can help with reviewing cases on an individual basis.

If someone does self-harm while on an international trip, you need to provide first aid, contact emergency services if they’re needed, do a risk assessment, inform the parents or carers and then contact our Safeguarding team for advice.

You should also look at the local government’s guidance as this may influence your response.

How can I help to manage ongoing concerns of self-harm?

If you are aware that someone self-harms then it is likely that they are under the care of a mental health team. If this is the case, you could ask if they could share their safety plan with you.

If they don’t have, or don’t want to share, a safety plan with you, you can use the Girlguiding wellbeing plan with them to discuss how you can support them

The Girlguiding Safeguarding structure

When you have any safeguarding concern, remember that we have a structure in place to safeguard and manage risk for all its members. Whilst safeguarding is every bodies responsibility, our structure means no one has to do it alone.

Check details of the safeguarding structure.

What to do if you have a concern?

If you have a concern about a girl, young woman or adult in Girlguiding you should read our A Safe Space pocket guide (PDF) or follow the safeguarding procedure.

You can also contact the Safeguarding team on:

Tel: 0207 834 6242 (usual office hours)

Out of hours emergency phone: 07508 032997

(5pm - 10pm Monday - Friday and 9am - 10pm Saturday/Sunday). Please do not text the out of hours number as we are unable to access these messages.

Email: [email protected]

Further information and support

SelfharmUK - SelfharmUK is a project dedicated to supporting young people from all over the UK impacted by self-harm.

Harmless - Self-harm support at Harmless providing a range of services about self-harm including support, information, training, and consultancy to people who self-harm.

Mind - Explains self-harm, including possible causes and how you can access treatment and support. Includes tips for helping yourself, and guidance for friends and family

Self-injury Support - UK-wide self-harm and self-injury charity offering direct support, reliable information, expert training, and specialist consultancy

Young Minds - Find out what self-harm means and what to do if you think you are affected by it, providing free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK as well as advice and support for parents and carers. Parents helpline: freephone 0808 802 5544 (Mon – Fri 9:30-4pm)

MeeTwo app (Google Play or App Store) - A free app for teenagers providing peer support and resources. Young people can share what's going on for them and send supportive messages to others. All messages are fully moderated.

Calm Harm app - A free app to help manage self-harm urges through distraction techniques.

Kooth - A free online counselling and emotional well-being platform for children and young people. Accessible through mobile, tablet and desktop.

The Mix - Articles and discussion boards on many topics that affect young people under 25. Also offers a helpline, counselling services and peer to peer support.

HopelineUK - Advisers work with you to understand why these thoughts of suicide might be present, providing you with a safe space to talk through anything happening in your life that could be impacting on your or anyone else’s ability to stay safe.