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How Can I Help a Friend Who Cuts?

Medically reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD

You've heard about cutting — when people use a sharp object to cut their own skin on purpose until it bleeds. Cutting is a form of self-injury.

Lately, you’ve seen some cuts and scratches on your friend’s arm. Could your friend be cutting? If so, what you should you know? And what can you do to help? 

Why Do People Self-Injure? 

It can be hard to understand why a friend might hurt themselves on purpose. Often, it’s complicated. But if your friend is cutting, it’s likely they are dealing with problems or painful emotions — and haven’t yet found other ways to cope.

Some people say self-injury distracts them from problems they face. Or that it interrupts painful feelings that are hard to handle. Some say it’s an outward expression of their inner pain. Some say it gives them a sense of relief or calm when they feel overwhelmed. Some say they do it to ‘wake up’ and feel something.

But what can start as an attempt to feel better can become a harmful habit that’s hard to break.

Do People Self-Injure to Get Attention?

Most people who self-injure aren't doing it to get attention. And most are not trying to die by suicide. But self-injury can cause bleeding or infection that the person didn’t intend  — or even a life-threatening injury.

Can Self-Injury Be a Sign of a Mental Health Problem?

Some people who self-injure have another mental health issue that needs care. Some have been through trauma or other difficult life events. Some feel isolated, rejected, or alone.

Self-injury isn’t a healthy way to cope with problems. But the person doing it isn’t to blame. It might take time, but it’s never too late to learn healthier ways to cope. And everyone can.     

Can a friend really make a difference? You may not be able to solve your friend’s problems. That part is up to them. But your support can mean a lot. And it could prompt your friend to get the help they need to feel and do better.

My Friend Might Be Cutting: What Can I Do to Help?

Most of the time, people who self-injure don't talk about it or let others know they’re doing it. But sometimes they confide in a friend. Or a friend might find out in another way. If you're not sure if a friend is cutting, here are some things you can try.

Bring up the topic. If you’ve noticed scratches or healing cuts, it’s OK to say something. Tell your friend what you’ve noticed. You can ask with kindness (and without judgment) if they’re hurting themselves on purpose. Ask if they’d like to talk about what they’re going through. Ask how you can help. 

Offer to talk — and listen. Your friend may not want to talk about it. But you can let them know you care and that you are open to talking anytime. And if your friend wants to talk, you don’t need to give answers or advice. Most of the time, you can help best just by listening.

What if you asked about the cuts and scratches and your friend changed the subject? Try again. Let your friend know that you won't judge or lecture them, that you want the best for them, and want to help.

Get help from a trusted adult. Encourage your friend to talk to an adult they trust. Help your friend think of who this could be. You could offer to go with them. If your friend isn’t ready for this step, you could talk with an adult. You could talk to your parent, a school counselor, or a teacher or coach your friend is close to.  

Let the adult know you’re concerned about your friend. Ask them to reach out to your friend, or help your friend meet with a therapist.

If your friend asks you to keep the cutting a secret, you could say that you aren't sure you can. Your friend may be mad at you at first. But talking with an adult can be the first step to helping your friend. 

Just be a friend. Try to understand what your friend is going through. But don’t let self-injury or problems be the only things you talk about. Make time to do things together that you both enjoy. Find ways to connect in friendship and fun. Having a friend who cares and believes in you can make a big difference. You can be that person for your friend.

Take care of yourself and your own feelings. It's natural to feel worried, sad, or upset about your friend. But it can be draining if you get too caught up in worrying about their problems. And it can be hard on you if your friend is going through a lot — or if they just won't let you help. 

Be sure to get the support you need. Even if your friend isn’t ready for help, it can help you to confide in an adult you trust. Talk about what’s going on and how you feel.

Sometimes, even the truest friend may need to take a break from an intense situation.

Give it time. You can do your best to encourage your friend to get help. But they might not be open to the idea, at least not right away. Be patient. Your friend could need time to think about what you've said. But reaching out in a caring way is the best thing one friend can do for another.

Medically reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: December 2022