Self-harm: Australian treatment guide for consumers and carers, 2005

How effective are different treatments for self-harm?

Page last updated: June 2005

Treatment goals
Treatments that are not recommended
So what do I conclude from this research?
What other things may help?

It is not always possible to prove that a treatment works. Research on treatments tested to date, has been unconvincing in determining whether they specifically reduce self-harm. None has been proven to be absolutely effective. However, this is often because of study design problems.

In any case, the real purpose of treatment is to first deal with underlying mental health problems so that people are more able to cope when distressed and less likely to self-harm.

Treatment goals

  • Treat associated mental illness
  • Prevent future self-harm
  • Improve coping skills
  • Reduce distress
  • Prevent suicide
  • Extend the time between self-harm
  • Reduce injury severity
  • Help your family to help you.


Antidepressant medications of various types may be prescribed by your doctor and have been shown to be effective in treating depressive illness. Mood stabilisers and antipsychotics are indicated for the treatment of bipolar disorder.

If you have one of these disorders and are prescribed such medication you may find the relevant RANZCP guides helpful.

Psychological treatments

Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), problem solving therapy (PST), dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT) are all forms of psychological treatment with proven effectiveness for helping people with depression, anxiety disorders and other mental health problems. There are no side effects. There is some promising research to show they may help people reduce risk of self-harm. Health professionals need special training to use these treatments.

There are very effective treatments available for most mental illnesses.
Thorough assessment is recommended.
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Treatments that are not recommended

Recovered memory treatment is a form of in-depth psychological treatment that is used to recall past trauma. One small study showed its potential to increase self-harm in some people who are vulnerable in particular, people who may have survived past trauma. It is not recommended.

So what do I conclude from this research?

Because of the limitations of this research most mental health professionals agree that the goal of treatment is to first be assessed to see if your self-harm is related to any current mental disorder. If so, there are lots of promising and effective treatments for these.

What other things may help?

Coupled with looking after yourself and your relationships, and thinking positively about the future, most agree it is possible to overcome self-harm in time. It is recommended that you use the recommended research-based treatments for any mental disorder you might be experiencing and get help to cope with stress.

Many people who have overcome self-harm assisted the authors to compile this guide. Some people have found the following to sometimes be helpful:
  • Reading information on websites which advise on how to get the most out of mental health care
  • Attending support groups for people with similar problems
  • Reading books about other peoples' recovery
  • Continuing activities that are positive and to be hopeful about the future
  • Continuing positive relationships and observing the coping styles of other people.