What to say to someone who tells you they are cutting

You want to know how you can help a friend who is cutting. When someone tells you they are cutting, they are struggling and looking for someone to listen. 

Connect with the pain first

In other words, you don’t say things like, “You are so wonderful, why would you do that to yourself?” Because they might not be certain of why they are doing it and second because those phrases tend to make the sufferer feel misunderstood. 

Cutting is basically a negative coping strategy that someone might use to deal with a problem that’s bothering them. Bullying, divorce, death of a parent, for example. It can go from being a habit to an addiction which is dangerous.

So something like the script below, although simplistic and probably corny, it will give you the idea of a direction in which to go can help you help a friend who is cutting. 

Friend: I’ve been cutting

You: I’m honored you trust me. That took a lot of courage. It sounds so painful.  Do you know why you are cutting? 

Friend: I don’t know. 

You: When did it start?

Friend: I think it started after those girls texted that embarrassing picture of me with Jason naked from that party. It was so humiliating. I was so drunk.

You: I am so sorry that is really cruel.  Tell me how that made you feel. I’m listening.

Friend: It’s so stupid but when I think about that or a lot of things, I cut myself and at that moment it feels good… and then later I feel ashamed and embarrassed. I keep thinking I’ll stop but then I get those feelings again and I do it again. 

You: It sounds like something really awful happened that triggered the cutting. Do you cut when other bad things happen?

Friend: I guess I do. Yeah. A bad test score. An argument. But yeah.

You: I feel worried about you. Can we talk to an adult you trust? I can go with you. Who do you think would be good? How about your soccer coach?

Your friend brought it up because they  want to talk about it. Use the things attached to your head called ears, have empathy and ultimately you want them to reach out to a trusted adult and get the help they need to develop healthier coping strategies.

Why? Because you are not qualified to fix this. Neither is a trusted adult but they’ll know more about what to do next.

Typically people who cut are trying to cope with a problem and you don’t want this behavior to escalate. It can’t hurt to ask, “Have you been thinking of suicide?” 

Here are the basic steps:

  1. I am honored you trust me enough to tell me about this
  2. Listen with your heart without judgement 
  3. Ask if they are thinking of or are attempting suicide
  4. Basically, you want them to talk it out. And you mostly want to listen.  Say things like, “I’m concerned about you.”  
  5. Unless you are a social worker or psychologist, you are not qualified to fix this friend, so the goal would be to get them to confide in a trusted adult. 

This doesn’t fix everything but it’s a start. It’s a scary, frustrating and baffling behavior for most of us. We want to say, “just stop cutting.”

Please understand that it’s more complicated than that.

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Published by

Anne Moss Rogers

I am an emotionally naked TEDx speaker, and author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind. I raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost my youngest son, Charles to substance use disorder and suicide June 5, 2015. I help people foster a culture of connection to prevent suicide, reduce substance misuse and find life after loss. My motivational, training and workshop topics include suicide prevention, addiction, mental illness, and grief. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now the legacy I try and carry forward in my son's memory. Professional Speaker Website. Trained in ASIST and trainer for the evidence-based 4-hour training for everyone called safeTALK.

45 thoughts on “What to say to someone who tells you they are cutting”

  1. I have multiple friends that cut. One of them very recently confided in me that they have been hurting themselves. I followed all of your steps even before googling this because I have done it before. But usually my next step would be to go talk to my School counselor who I trust a lot, to try and get that person help. But since school is at home, and we are close to the end of the semester any way i’m not sure what to do. The other one who I have known cuts for about 8 months revealed to me that she had been googling ways to commit suicide on Quora. And she had really looking into it. I have gotten her help with the counselor and have talked her off from cutting multiple times, but again without the counselor I am lost. She has gotten help before at a mental hospital a few times, and her mom knows about her cutting, but I don’t know what to do now that she contemplates taking her life as well. I’m really starting to worry, she seemed okay tonight but that could all change. Please advise.

    1. You are an amazing friend. Honestly. The counselors are still working at schools. And if you are in touch with a teacher ask her to get you in touch with one and tell them. You can even tell the teacher you are concerned about a friend who is suicidal. In most states by law they have to connect you to a resource usually starting with the school counselor. They are “zooming” and calling students daily.

      A second option is a county or state crisis line. So here for example it’s the richmond city crisis line. And the one in the county is called Chesterfied county crisis line. So google the one in your county or city.

      Third option is to reach out to your local NAMI chapter. Every state has one. Many of them are adding young adult and teen support groups and they are adept at finding support. NAMI stands for National alliance of mental illness. They are an amazing organization. https://nami.org/findsupport

      AFSP, American Foundation of Suicide prevention also has local chapters and support. They don’t have groups per se but I want you to be aware. They do screen some films and more. https://afsp.org/find-a-local-chapter/

      For your friend who is suicidal, listening helps a bunch. Single most important thing to do. Here is a guide on what to say. And the help would be found at one of the above resources. They are challenging to find right now. https://annemoss.com/2019/12/10/they-said-theyre-thinking-of-suicide-what-now/

      You can come back here ok? I will help you do this. You have a lot of resilience and maturity and I am so grateful for that right now.

      1. I got in touch with my counselor this morning thankfully. I sent her an email explaining and then she called as a follow up. She is going to be checking in with me and contacting both the friends parents to try and help them.

        I sent the suicidal friend the number for the prevention hotline, and gave her more “comforting” talk. I want them to still be able to confide in me, but I’m worried they will shut me out, now that I have gone back to the counselor. If the one suicidal one, lets call her X, is still responding and confiding in me I will try to convince her to look into NAMI. It sounds like a very good tool for her. I can also see if shes seeing a therapist, that might be another good step.

        X knows that I take what she says very seriously and knows I am willing to get her help. And I think she knows from past experiences that I will usually involve an adult when I think shes in danger. But the other friend lets call them Y, has only just confided in me yesterday. We are good friends but I feel that she might be mad at me for going to someone right away. I know it was the right thing to do, I just don’t want that trust broken.

        I found a few hotlines that are good to just talk to, they are not immediate but they helped calm me down a bit and gave pretty good advice. the one I found was called Here2Help which is in partner with the prevention hotline. Would that be something I could recommended to both of them?

        I appreciate you responding so quickly, I love what you are trying to help people with, and your own personal story made me feel like you would listen and help. Hope you are well, thank you for all the advice and aid.

        1. I just can’t believe how mature you are Gwenyth. And the lengths you go to help your friends. It’s remarkable. I think the here2help is a good resource. It differs by area of the US. But it’s typically a good place for students to call.

          I don’t know where you are but in Richmond, VA we have a “peer warm line.” Those warm lines are usually the first step to getting someone to a support group. They talk to someone who has been through exactly what they’re going through. And instead of suggesting a support group to her, maybe say, “Would you consider a support group with others who are struggling with the same issues?” Just plant the seed and let her think on it. Then it kind of comes to her as “her idea.” Then she might come back later and ask for the resource and you can look into the local NAMI groups. This step takes a lot of patience and sometimes suggesting it instead of a question doesn’t go as well. It depends on the person though.

          There are ways to repair a relationship after telling an adult about a teen in trouble. You can say something like, “I am sorry and I know you must feel betrayed. I want you to know that I was discreet but your life an you are important to me and I don’t know how I’d live with myself is somting terrible happened to you so I had to share this with a trusted adult. Even if you can’t understand right now, please know that my telling someone came from a place of love. And that you matter to me and I hope you forgive me.”

          My next thought is that you are so good at this, maybe you start a mental wellness club for your school. A virtual one. I think the school counselor can help you do this. So there is you and an adult sponsor at each one. Then you can have school support groups and feature a theme each month. Maybe even speakers or books. My neice did this at her school and it was amazing to watch how successful it was.

  2. My friend cuts and she’s clinically depressed, her mom is too but her dad doesn’t believe in depression. Her parents threatened to kick her out before and she’s scared that another incident of her cutting and being caught will get her kicked out. I don’t know what to do to help her.

    1. Ananya- First of all, you are a good friend. And I hear you saying that telling her parents might be a risk that triggers a much more serious problem. I would hope they would not follow through with throwing her out but it does illustrate a lack of understanding. Tell me where you are. Just a city or state if in the United States. Or the area in which you live if elsewhere. That way I can help you find resources. There are a lot of virtual meetings and help lately.

  3. Another friend of mine who has been depressed for a while and been mentally abused by her mom’s boyfriend (Imma call him “E” for now) and E’s kids but her mom doesn’t care. Now she’s being forced by her mom to be homeschooled and recently her mom has suddenly decided to take her to some random mental clinic. School was her safe place but now she doesn’t have that. I’m scared her depression is gonna increase drastically and she might start cutting (as far as I’ve ever known she hasn’t yet) or go farther. How can I help her?

    1. You are such a good friend and you are right to be concerned and be her advocate. Call Child Protective Services. Phone: (360) 902-8060 or 1-800 723-4831. This is for the state of Washington. And you can also ask your school counselor for resources. Not guidance but someone in the counseling department. I couldn’t find the school counselor on your school website.

  4. My friend told me she was depressed and then showed me scars on her wrists. I think she was trying to hint that she was cutting but was too embarrassed to say anything. What can I do to help her? Any recommended numbers, sites, or professional treatment I can get her?

    1. You can both use the crisis text line for starters. That’s national and it’s 741-741. You can do that together if you want or separately.

      I would recommend going to the school counselor, though. Ask her if you two can go together. Tell her this is serious and you are worried about her and it’s important that she get help and you are with her. You can do it together. Stronger together. She might say no at first. Be patient and say it again. Which is hard. But really emphasize that none of this will fix itself and she has already been very brave to tell someone and now it’s important to take that next step. If she refuses, you are going to have to go anyway. It’s better that she be mad at you than dead. Your school district appears to have a new pilot program for mental health in partnership with Washington State University.

      Here is the crisis line for your county if you live in Pierce county which would be the same as your school district. Pierce County, Beacon Health Options, 1-800-576-7764. You can call and just ask for advice and tell them what’s wrong. Again, you can call by yourself or WITH your friend. But I would go for the school counselor. If you are not in Pierce county here is the list. https://www.hca.wa.gov/health-care-services-supports/behavioral-health-recovery/mental-health-crisis-lines

      Let me know how it goes or ask more questions. OK.

  5. Hi Anne,
    I just found out that my boyfriend has just started cutting again. He’s been in and out of therapy and his current therapist doesn’t seem to be helpful at all. He hasn’t told anyone yet, including his parents and I’m really worried for him. Do you have any advice for me?

    1. A.B. I’m so sorry you’ve had to struggle with this worry. He is cutting because he is trying to cope with some emotional distress. And this is not something you can fix for him but you can support him in his efforts for recovery. But like you have found, it is frustrating. He needs a healthier coping strategy to replace the unhealthy one (in this case cutting). So maybe he uses writing to to manage pain. Cutting is an effort to avoid pain when what people need to understand that life has pain and we need to allow it in because feelings are temporary. A person can’t heal if they avoid the problem with an unhealthy coping strategy Right now it’s a habit and maybe even an addiction and it takes a long time to find recovery. But people do.

      Some have found a mental health group helpful. I found this to be the most helpful. And NAMI has groups in every state in the US. There are a lot of people in those groups who suffer from anxiety or depression and have been cutters or are cutters. You can find that here: https://nami.org/Find-Support?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI39S8rP-x5wIVi5-zCh0TtQhMEAAYAiAAEgKqxvD_BwE

      This strategy has worked for some. https://annemoss.com/2016/08/03/self-harm-safety-box/

      You have to practice self-care for yourself and accept you can’t do it for another person. You are a thoughtful and caring young lady. Let me know how it goes.

  6. Today my friend who’s been struggling with depression for many years sent me a message “Why do I feel better when I cut myself”.
    How do I respond to that? I’m the only friend she has and I don’t want to hurt her by telling her to tell someone else 😢😢😢 Her psychologist doesn’t help her out apparently

    1. She is doing it as a coping strategy. So when something is painful, like the loss of a sister, for example, people want to divert their attention from emotional pain by causing some physical pain. It’s a form of relief that after a while is like an addiction. The self-harm safety box has worked for many people. But for her to stop cutting, she has to replace it with a healthy coping strategy. It’s also a journey that looks like this. So they cut, then stop, then relapse, and stop and eventually they find full recovery if they don’t die from it prior to that. Did that help? Let me know if you have other questions. I can also ask a former cutter to respond as well.

  7. My friend recently told me she’s cutting herself. It started after she got raped, and I don’t know what to tell her.
    I’ve asked her if she has anyone to talk to, parent or teacher, and she says no
    What should I do

    1. What a compassionate friend you are. She must really be hurting. I know you are honored she saw you as a trusted person she could confide in and thank God she told someone. She is cutting to cope with the pain of the rape. By cutting, she focuses on that physical pain instead of the agony of the aftermath of rape which is more painful to her. You are not the fixer in this situation. But you are a connector meaning you can connect your friend with resources to help her.

      Don’t promise total secrecy but do promise sensitivity and discretion. This could potentially be a life/death issue so it’s important to do something. If you have a mom or dad who is a good supporter, you can engage their help. A school counselor is also another option. But you can do this.

      1. Look for local rape resources by googling, “rape crisis center _______ ___.” Fill in the blanks with your city and state. If you are in a small town, call the national hotline (800-656-4673) and ask them for local resources. So this step is all about doing the research to help your friend find support locally. Places that handle rape cases are the most compassionate, giving and thoughtful people you will ever meet. The idea is to go to her with a plan outlined on her next step. She is in a state of mind where this is too difficult for her right now. It is a trauma. You want to get together an outline of what happens next and you can write that on your phone.

      3. Talk with her, let her know about your research on the resources for rape and tell her you will both call and/or go together. If she has confided in you, then taking the next step will be easier. She’s already done it once. She can do it again. If you are not yet 16, find a trusted person to give you both a ride. Some towns are so small they don’t have a center but a number. There is usually a statewide number. But there are resources for this.

      4. This does not mean she has to press charges but she will get the support she needs to work through this.

      Let me know your thoughts and concerns. I am here to help you.

  8. Hi…so a while back my friend added me into this chat with a few of her friends and a bunch of people we don’t really know, they don’t live in the same location as me, some of them even live in a different continent, I don’t have any of their emails and the only way I can talk with them is in the big chat, one of the girls in the chat admit to my friend that she cuts herself and I don’t know what to do because the only way I can talk with them is through a text-chat, I don’t know if she is joking or if she’s being serious because I don’t know her, what should I do?

    1. First I want to say how thoughtful you are to want to help this friend although you do t even know her. If she said it publicly in the chat, do take it seriously as I feel she is crying out for help. If there is no way to send a direct message, and she says it, ask if she wants to email privately to talk about it. You will have to say it publicly if there is no other option. I am going to guess she wants to discuss this with someone. That’s what it sounds like to me. You are a lovely friend. Others are lucky to have you on their side.

  9. My friend has told me she has been cutting. But I never know how to go about because she’ll think it’s weird that I’m asking so much about her cuts. And we almost never see each other in-person, we only speak through texts. How can I talk to her about it but not seem weird?

    1. Asking shows you care. And you can start it with, “I care about you so I might have questions to try and understand better what you are going through. I hope it’s ok if I ask them. And let me know if something I ask is too sensitive. Understanding it will help me support you better.” I hope that helps. Feel free to ask me more questions.

      1. Hi, I just discovered my friend is/ was cutting. I don’t know if she is still doing it or whether she stopped. I just saw the scars and my heart poured out for her. I feel so bad and I don’t know what to do. How can I breech the topic with her? Though I’m afraid we’re not that close so she’d probably not be interested in talking to me. Am I a bad friend? Please help.

        1. Hi sally. I think you just say to her, “can we talk in private? I noticed you have some battle scars that I figure are the result of some struggle. I am here to listen. Not judge or fix.”

          You as a special person.

  10. Hello!! I recently discovered that my friend is cutting herself.. can u please tell me what I should do? I’m really confused..

    1. First of all, thank you for being a good friend. Listen to her first. I don’t know where you are writing from and what resources are available but she is doing the cutting to cope. Cutting gives her relief at the moment. It’s an unhealthy coping strategy. Ask her if she wants to keep cutting? If not you can share the article below with her. But you need to know, you can’t fix this but you can only help her fix herself.

      So the Self Harm Safety box is one way to do this herself. https://annemoss.com/2016/08/03/self-harm-safety-box/

      If you are in a school and there are resources, ask her if she wants to stop cutting and if she says, yes, you say, “We agree you want to stop cutting so we should go together to tell the school counselor.”

  11. My daughter is 26 years old and suffers with bipolar, anxiety and depression. She has been cutting herself for years and letting us know after the fact. This morning at 3:30 AM she called to tell me that she wanted to cut her self but wanted to talk to me or her dad because she really didn’t want to. I honest don’t know what to do. She has been in a mental health facility twice. She can’t keep a job and relationships are extremely hard to maintain. It’s very hard to offer her words of encouragement as she sees life is a very bleak place. My husband and I don’t know what to do at this point as she is an adult.

    1. There is one thing I regret not telling my son, “As much as I want you to get well, I love you even if you don’t.” It is ok to feel defeated and exhausted. But you know you won’t give up.

      I understand the guilt of feeling that way. What helped me the most was a support group. It helped me with strategies of managing my own difficulties and how to see, understand and manage my son who suffered from mental illness. I think your daughter took a big first step in recognizing the behavior before it happened. That is huge. Reinforce that. Tell her that is a big step to getting well.

      But you can’t always be the only go to. Her plan needs to include you, another family member and the crisis text line. Together you guys need to identify some others to call.

      She needs to identify and write down those feelings she has prior to cutting. Now that she has felt it and stopped it, she should be able to do that. She will need to Develop new coping strategies to replace this one.

      All that takes time but she has turned a corner. It might include some hiccups and relapses but this really is a monumental step. Look up Tammy Ozolins on this site. (Make a Comment On her article about cutting so she sees it) and ask your daughter to review the article here “self harm safety box.”

      There were times I felt wrung out with worry and exhaustion. For you https://annemoss.com/2017/06/03/done-refueling-comment/

  12. My best friend today admitted to me that she was cutting herself. I didn’t know what to do at the moment and I really wanted to make it better. I want her to stop cutting or at least help her but I don’t know-how.

    1. First of all thank you for wanting to help an friend and listening. We can listen, ask questions but the frustrating part is seeing someone be self destructive and not being able to fix it or get them to stop. By asking them the questions I outlined above we can sometimes plant seeds that make them think. Asking “do you know why you are cutting yourself?” Simply helps them see they are using it to cope. But ultimately we want them to get help. We aren’t qualified to help them stop so finding g a trusted adult to get help for the person is what we can do. Often a school counselor.

      You are welcome to write more about your friend and vent your frustration here. I have felt that frustration. It’s not a great place to be. And it’s really hard to understand and watch another go through this. It’s a helpless feeling. Thank you for commenting. Again. You are a caring and thoughtful human being.

  13. Hello,
    A friend of mine is cutting herself. She has done this multiple times before in the past and went to therapy and all. But she started again recently and it’s even worse this time. She prays for God to kill her soon in church every Sunday. It is really freaking me out. I asked her what she was planning on doing next and if she expects to do it again. She said that she knew where the blade was and that she could cover it up more since it’s fall. I’m scared to tell my school officials as I would betray her and when somebody else did last time it didn’t help her. But at the same time, I want to do something before things get serious and out of control. I was wondering if I could get your advice on this.

    1. First of all I admire you for being a real and genuine friend. And caring enough to look up and ponder what to do. So I will start by asking a question. If your friend were to die as a result of self harm or suicide, would you the. Have wished you would have told someone? I understand your struggle because I have had to tell someone as well and it does feel as if we are going behind the person’s back. But I know you would struggle if your friend died and knowing you could have done something to prevent it. You are smart to think about that but I think you already know the answer. In choosing which trusted adult to tell, consider a school counselor, a teacher, a minister, a coach or a friend. Choose one who will try to get her help. And if she gets angry just tell her you would rather have her mad at you and alive than dead. And you were concerned for her life and you knew how friends and family would react to such a huge loss. I hope that helps. Feel free to come back and comment or ask questions

  14. Hey today at dance class there is this girl I just met a few weeks ago. I’m new to this dance studio and this girl kinda got close to me. It was weird at first but then she kinda reminded me of me when I was little. But anyway she bluntly told me that she was cutting herself. (This is how it went)
    Me: I gotta take my Sweater off or else I get really hot and sweat. That surely wont be fun for me.
    Her: I cant take mine off (pulls up her sleeve) cuz apparently this is frowned upon. (She acted nonchalant as if it was normal.)
    Me:…mhm…(I freaked out and blurted this out.) Ya know you can get staff infection?
    What do I do? Aren’t people that do this ment to be secretive about it? This is really confusing. I need some help on how to approach this as you can see.

    1. Wow. She clearly wanted to tell someone. Start by asking her questions. “Why do you cut?” “Do you want to stop?” “Are you willing to tell someone?” Then there’s this if she wants to try to stop. https://annemoss.com/2016/08/03/self-harm-safety-box/

      You are a thoughtful person to care enough to look it up. There is no perfect solution. But ultimately, you can talk with the teacher about it if it gets too intense. You are not telling because you are ratting someone out but because this is dangerous behavior that is life threatening. It’s stressful for you, too.

  15. So sorry for the loss of your son Ma’am. I write inspirational articles for mental health organizations and I am currently writing a book. I am currently writing an article to amazing people who cut and in my own words. I wanted to share with them healthier alternatives without harming themselves in addition to seeing someone who is an expert in this area. God bless you. Love ,Danny

      1. Thank you Ma’am. I just submitted my article I did called the FIGHTER! The story of how I persevered and won the war over my struggles. Love,Danny Gautama

      2. My Friend Grace has been cutting herself I met her a few months ago and she was a pretty cool person and today I found out she was cutting herself because my friend Sebastian told me “If a friend was cutting will you help them” I said yes and Grace was like “I Cut myself” with Grief I felt so bad they asked me if I cut myself Thank God I don’t and she had a scissors when I found out she was cutting herself and I took it away from her and she said don’t tell no one and to give the scissor back I didn’t I hid I still have her secret till this day. 😔😟

      1. My Friend Grace has been cutting herself I met her a few months ago and she was a pretty cool person and today I found out she was cutting herself because my friend Sebastian told me “If a friend was cutting will you help them” I said yes and Grace was like “I Cut myself” with Grief I felt so bad they asked me if I cut myself thank

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