• language;
  • religion;
  • self-harm;
  • stigma;
  • suicide

Accessible summary

  • • 
    This paper has been informed through systematic literature searches of research databases and core texts on the subject of self-harm.
  • • 
    Despite the increase of self-harm, stigma and misunderstanding surround the issue, which often compound the sense of emotional pain felt by those people who are affected by self-harm.
  • • 
    Gaining an understanding of the cultural, historical and religious origins of self-harm can illuminate the ways in which self-harm has evolved with us as part of our humanity.
  • • 
    This paper aims to increase understanding of self-harm, and by doing so to question commonly held assumptions and foster more empathic responses to self-harm among practitioners.


Self-harm is a widespread and controversial issue in contemporary society. Statistics are based on reported incidents and therefore do not accurately reveal prevalence, as self-harm is often a hidden behaviour. This highlights the essential need for practitioners and society to work towards reducing the stigma surrounding self-harm. This paper goes some way towards understanding the impact of self-harm on individuals and communities. It begins by exploring terminologies and definitions of self-harm and discusses the importance of sensitivity in language use relating to self-harm. It continues by examining types of self-harm and subsequently presents life experiences that may contribute to the onset of self-harm. The paper elucidates the cultural, historical and religious origins of self-harm, indicating the ways in which self-harm has evolved with us as part of our humanity. Moreover, literature relating to the significance of stigma and attitudes is examined, followed by issues around psychiatric diagnoses pertaining to self-harm. The paper concludes by synthesizing literature relevant to the relationship between self-harm and suicide.