My friend has been having a really hard time, and I recently noticed they have scars on their wrists from cutting. They don’t get along with their parents and I don’t want to betray their trust, but I’m really worried. What should I do?

It sounds like your friend must be going through a lot right now. Self-harm like cutting is serious and often a sign of something larger going on (like deep emotional pain or a mental health condition). You clearly care about them, and it’s great that you’re thinking about what you can do to be there for them. There are lots of ways you can help a friend who cuts.

Lots of people aren’t sure how to support a friend who cuts, partly because they don’t know much about self-harm in the first place.

One common misunderstanding is that people who cut are trying to kill themselves. While some people who self-harm are suicidal, most people who self-harm are not trying to kill themselves.

People cut for lots of different reasons. Some people feel numb, and hurt themselves to feel something. Others cut to punish themselves, communicate how distressed they are, or to distract themselves from emotional pain with physical pain. Often, people cut when they feel so overwhelmed by their emotions that they can’t use other coping mechanisms (like a breathing exercise). We answer more questions about self-harm here.

So, how can you support your friend?

Talk to your friend about what’s going on. They may tell you the scars are from an accident, or get angry at you for asking. You can’t force your friend to talk to you about self-harm. Let your friend know that you are there for them no matter what. Keep letting them know that you care about them.

It’s important to be open and nonjudgmental. Don’t say, “Why would you do that to yourself?” or “I can’t believe you’d cut yourself.” Instead, try:

  • “I’ve noticed you’ve been down, and saw your scars the other day. I’m worried about you and want to talk.”
  • “It sounds like you’re going through a really hard time.”
  • “How have you been feeling recently?”
  • “How are you handling everything that’s going on?”
  • “I care about you a lot, and want to know how you are.”

Whether your friend is ready to talk to you or not, let them know about some ways they can get help when they’re ready. We’ve included some resources below. You could also offer to go with them to talk to a guidance counselor, teacher, parent or other trusted adult.

Even though you say your friend doesn’t get along with their parents, it’s still time to talk to an adult.

Cutting is dangerous. If your friend accidentally cuts too deep, they may put their life in danger. Your friend also deserves to feel better. If you feel uncomfortable talking to your friend’s parents, try your guidance counselor or another trusted adult. It may feel like you’re betraying their trust, but you are actually being brave by helping your friend get help.

Ultimately, you can’t control your friend’s behavior. If they’re not ready to accept support or work toward change, you can’t force them. All you can do is keep being there for them.

You probably have a lot of feelings about this, too.

It’s completely normal and ok to feel stressed, worried, sad, angry, confused or other emotions. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Journal, listen to music, or go on walks. Talk to someone you trust, like a guidance counselor, about what’s going on. Even though you seem to understand that self-harming is unhealthy, seeing someone else do it can make it seem normal. Remember that self-harming is not a safe or healthy way to cope with your emotions.