Constructive Support for Friends and Family Struggling with Self-Harm

Woman Dealing with Depression and Eating Disorders

Self-harming is an often misunderstood behavior. Also referred to as Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI), those that struggle with self-harm are often not attempting to engage in suicidal behaviors but are attempting to experience release from distress. With approximately 15% of college students and 17% of adolescents engaging in self-harming behaviors at least once, most people have a loved one that has struggled with self-harm.

Even so, we are often not educated on how to support someone struggling with mental distress. If you have a loved one that struggles with self-harming behaviors and you don’t know how to help, consider these tips as a helpful start.

Be There

This may seem like the most obvious way to support someone, but it is often the most difficult to actually do. Being there does not mean fixing everything or provide advice. It simply means what it sounds like – to be there.

Those that struggle with self-harming are often challenged to cope with emotional distress, and their method of self-injuring has become their go-to despite its ineffectiveness. There are moments for encouraging the use of other skills or providing advice.

However, there also may be moments when your loved one simply needs you to sit with them in their distress. This may be difficult for you, as you likely want to do something to solve the problem for them and make things better. Remind yourself that they will be more successful in their recovery from self-harming if they find these solutions themselves and that the best you can do to support them is to sit with them, listen, and be present.

Be Open to Changes

The long-term goal for individuals that struggle with self-harming behaviors is to eventually learn effective coping skills that can be used instead of self-harming. In the short-term, there are often changes that need to be made in the individual’s environment and surroundings to help them abstain from self-harming behaviors as they strengthen alternative skills.

Woman struggling with Self-HarmFor example, individuals are often encouraged to move or remove the objects they use to self-harm, such as any sharp objects. For those that cannot get rid of all sharp utensils in their home, this might mean moving them to a less obvious place or placing them under a lock-and-key temporarily. While this may be inconvenient when it comes time to cook dinner or use scissors, it can make a huge difference for the individual attempting to recover from self-harm.

Emotions are always in motion, and the longer it takes an individual to find a utensil to self-harm, the more likely they are to feel their distressing emotions pass and/or consider more effective methods of coping. Making small changes to your daily life to support your loved ones not only helps them in their recovery but shows your own willingness to invest in their growth and progress.

Know Your Limitations

When supporting a loved one that struggles with mental illness, it is important to be aware of your own limitations. You are not expected to become as knowledgeable or skilled as a mental health professional in order to support them.

When you find yourself struggling to meet your loved one’s emotional needs or to help them in de-escalating emotional distress, recognize that you have reached your own limit. Do not shame yourself for this. Instead, acknowledge that your loved one needs something that you cannot provide and direct them toward someone that can.

This might mean encouraging them to use their own skills, reach out to their professional support, or call a crisis line. Ultimately, you cannot make choices for your loved ones. Recognize that the best you can do is to support them in their own mental health journey by being there for them without agenda, being open to the changes you can make to contribute to their growth, and recognizing when they need more help than you can provide.


[1] Unknown (2015). Who self-injures? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from

About the Author:

Image of Margot Rittenhouse.Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.

As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published February 27, 2021, on
Reviewed & Approved on February 27, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

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