The role of online and online peer support for young people who self-harm


YouthNet and five other organisations in Denmark, Italy, Slovenia and the UK* have just launched a Good Practice Guide by practitioners for practitioners providing a ground-breaking framework on how to support young people who self-harm through online and online peer support services.

Beyond the cultural differences characterising the four countries, the research identified many similarities in the way young people self-harm and seek help. This has allowed us to develop a framework which is adaptable across boundaries.

There is an urgency to develop innovative support services on self-harm, because practitioners have not yet found the right way to reach young people who self-harm: around one in 15 young people in Denmark, Italy, Slovenia and the UK self-harm but yet only a minority of them seek support.

This is because of the following barriers:

  1. Lack of awareness of the issue and of available support: young people who self-harm often do not understand the seriousness of their own self-harming and do not know where to find support.
  2. Stigma and misconceptions (i.e. self-harm is sometimes seen as attention seeking behaviour, being easy to stop, or just a passing phase.) These myths not only affect the way the support is offered, but can also prevent young people from admitting their self-harm for fear of being stigmatised.
  3. Emotional barriers: young people that self-harm are often lonely and many find it difficult to express their feelings with others.
  4. Practical and procedural barriers, including long waiting periods before support is available and fear of confidentiality being broken by teachers and doctors.

By creating services which are adapted to the channels young people already use when looking for support and information, practitioners can break down these barriers. 93% of 16-24-year-olds in Europe use the internet, also to find information on sensitive issues such as self-harm. Similarly, peer have an important role to play: once young people have taken the decision to disclose something personal, they are much more likely to talk to their peers about their self-harm as opposed to adults.

The six organisations involved in the project recognised the potential of the internet and peers in supporting young people who self-harm and have developed innovative services of online and online peers support. The project reached more than 50,000 young people across the four countries through a variety of online services as articles, Q&As, discussion forums and online counselling.

Through a thorough evaluation of the projects, the research found that online services can really help to overcome the barriers young people face when looking for support on their self-harm by:

  1. Providing early intervention.
  2. Providing easy access to information that overcomes practical and procedural barriers.
  3. Providing an online community where young people can help others in their situation, enhancing the impact on young people who self-harm and having a therapeutic effect on the person who is providing help.
  4. Providing a connection with others who have the same issues; this makes young people realise they are not alone, helps raise awareness and breaks the stigma around self-harm.
  5. Providing a safe anonymous space where people feel comfortable expressing their feeling, overcoming personal emotional barriers.

“On the forum, I’ve given a load out, which is therapeutic in its own way. (…) I feel like with all I’ve dealt with maybe I could help some other angry young person not make a dick of themselves. I feel like I’m a terrible person. If I can make up for that, just a little bit, then maybe it’s ok.” Emily, interviewed by YouthNet

The six organisations involved in the project identified eight key principles which should underpin any online services supporting young people who self-harm across countries. Online services should:

  1. Engage young people in development and delivery of the services – young people know best what they need.
  2. Provide help in a holistic way that recognises that the issues in young people’s lives are all interlinked.
  3. Respect young people’s need for a safe and trusted space that clearly sets out the terms under which the support is provided (i.e. being clear about confidentiality and about what is and is not acceptable behaviour).
  4. Be accessible and easy to use in a practical sense.
  5. Seek to bridge the gap between online and offline support through signposting and setting out a young person’s options and rights.
  6. Adapt to the forms of support young people are comfortable using by designing services in a way that takes account of the strengths and constraints of online channels.
  7. Include services that allow different levels of online engagement for users – some young people only need to read an article, others might want to share their feelings in a forum, others might want to provide support to their peers.
  8. Actively look out for the needs of both the young people offering support and those receiving support.

If you want to know more about the research, please read the full Good Practice Guide.

For enquires about the guide or if you want to know more about the project, you can contact Elena at

*The five organisations involved in the project were Cyberhus (Denmark), Associazione Photofficine Onlus (Italy), The Institute for Research and Development “Utrip” (Slovenia), Depaul UK and 42nd Street (UK). This guide is the result of a two-year project funded by the Daphne III Programme of the European Union

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Elena Di Antonio

About Elena Di Antonio

Elena was our Research Manager until May 2013.
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  1. Pingback: Six youth charities across Europe including 3 in the UK have published research on young people whoself-harm. | Child Protection Training UK