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Suicide & Self Harm: Part 1

Suicide and self harm seem very similar, so similar in fact that they are often seen as the same thing. This is problematic because they are unique; seeing them as one in the same can lead to people not getting the kind of help they need. It is important to understand how suicide and self harm differ as it will allow us to more effectively support our loved ones.

In order to highlight the differences between these two concepts we need to define them. Suicide means that someone has taken an action to end their life in order to escape unbearable emotional pain. In contrast self harm is defined as deliberate, repetitive and socially unacceptable injury to your body without the intent to die. For example, getting a piercing is accepted in our culture but getting your whole body pierced is not socially acceptable, as a result getting your whole body pierced could be considered self harm. There are a few key distinctions between suicide and self harm so let’s break it down:

  1. Intention?
    The first differentiation between self harm and suicide is intent. What are the motivations behind someone’s behaviour? Often if someone is suicidal they will act in a way that will almost certainly end their life, this is because they don’t see an alternative solution to their unbearable pain. On the other hand, someone who self harms may hurt themselves in order to get some relief from their emotional pain, self harming behaviour can be an alternative to suicide that allows them to continue living.
  2. Method?
    People who self harm vs. people who are suicidal use different methods. If someone is suicidal their intent is to end their life, in turn they will most likely use deadly methods. Sometimes people survive their first suicide attempt, if they attempt a second time they will most likely use the same method as their first attempt. If someone is self harming their actions will generally be less life threatening. These could be direct types of self harm such as cutting, head banging, etc. Or they can be indirect like eating disorders or extremely risky behaviours.
  3. How Often?
    Another aspect to consider is the frequency of these actions. If someone is suicidal they might attempt 1-2 times, they might die by suicide or they might get treatment and no longer feel suicidal (if people have a chronic mental illness they might attempt repeatedly). On the other hand, people who self harm usually hurt themselves very regularly (more than 30 times per year) and this may go on for many years, until they learn alternative coping strategies.
  4. Emotional Pain?
    Emotional pain is something we all experience from time to time, but it is especially relevant to people who are suicidal as well as those who self harm. People who are suicidal often report that their emotional pain feels endless and unbearable, this makes suicide look like a viable option. Those who self harm may feel that their emotional pain is overwhelming and uncomfortable but it can be interrupted, self harm is a tool many use to breakup their pain.

These are just a few of the factors that differentiate suicide from self harm. The second installment of this series will cover additional factors that differentiate these two behaviours, this will be posted next week.

Caring for someone who is suicidal or self harms is incredibly scary, review our help section for more information or call 911. Make sure you take time to care for yourself during this time. You will be better equipped to help your loved one if you are healthy as well.

This is a heavy and serious topic. Both suicide and self harm should not be taken lightly. If you are worried about yourself or your friend reach out for help:

If you want more information about self harm check out “Self Harm and Coping Tips”.

This article from our Illnesses section has information about Suicide.


Notar, M. (2019). Suicidal or self-harming? Assessment and treatment of “at risk” teens [Course handout]. Kitchener, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University.