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Self- harm is a serious concern and having an understanding of it and the reasons it occurs is an important step in the overcoming of it. It takes various shapes, from cutting and burning, to over-consumption of alcohol or drugs. People who self-harm often do so as a means of dealing with other difficult emotions. Self-harm can be used as a coping strategy that, in the short term, may help you manage your emotional distress. You may self-harm to try and feel as if you have more control over your emotions, but you may self-harm because of self-hate, or because you want to punish yourself. Whatever your reason, self-harm is not the best way of coping with your difficulties, so please use these resources available both in NUI Galway and in the city as a way of overcoming it. Self-harm only provides temporary relief and does not deal with your underlying issues.
Several mental health issues can lead to an increased chance of self-harm. For example, those suffering from depression or anxiety may be more inclined to self-harm in some way than others. Other instances or problems that may lead to a person self-harming are those where someone feels that they have no control over their situation. So experiences such as being bullied, experiencing bereavement, feeling rejected or experiencing a trauma or abuse, may trigger self-harm to try and gain control over the situation. If you do self-harm, it doesn't necessarily mean that you have a mental illness, it may just be that you're feeling alone, isolated, stressed, frustrated, or angry about issues out of your control. You may not know why you self-harm. Attacking your body is a means of communicating what can't be put into words, or even into coherent thoughts.
Dealing with self-harm would only be to scratch the surface of the problem really. If you find yourself starting to self-harm or have noticed such behaviour in a friend or family member, the most important thing for you to do is to try and reach the root of the problem. Those problems could range from depression to financial issues, bereavement, a relationship breakdown, or stress with college. The NUI Galway Student Counselling Service and Chaplaincy are available to listen and talk to you about any of these problems.
What causes a person to self-harm?
- You may self-harm because you don't know how else to cope with pressures from family, university and peer groups. Extreme feelings such as fear, anger, guilt, shame, helplessness, self-hatred, unhappiness, depression or despair can build up over time. When these feelings become unbearable, self-harm may feel like one of the only ways you can handle them.
- When the level of emotional pressure becomes too high, the act of self-harm can feel like a safety valve - a way of relieving tension.
- By inflicting pain on yourself, it can seem to make you feel more alive when inside you may be feeling numb.
- You might be punishing yourself in response to feelings of shame or guilt
- It can be a way to distract you from the real problems going on in your life
- When it's too difficult to talk to anyone, it's a form of communication about unhappiness and a way of acknowledging the need for help
- Self-harm can give a sense of control that might be missing elsewhere
- It is a way of expressing deep distress
Often, when people think of self-harm, the main things that occur to them are cutting or burning of one’s own skin. However, many people will perform some kind self-destructive behaviour quite regularly, in particular during challenging times. Sometimes they will do this without even being aware of their reasons or the damage that is being done. A person may over consume drugs or alcohol on a regular basis, smoke, or even work too many hours as a means of avoiding spending too much time in one’s own head with their thoughts and worries. This is not an effective way of tackling personal problems, and, if you find yourself or another person doing this, then it is crucial that you encourage the act of communication with others as an alternative method. You should never have to endure any of the great worries or concerns that come during your college years on your own. There is always someone who will be there to listen to and talk to you, and that will be insurmountably more effective than any self-harming could ever be.
I am worried about a friend and I think they might be self-harming
There are several risk indicators that may suggest that someone you are close to could be self-harming:
- Significant changes of behaviour, e.g. becoming withdrawn and isolated, stopping doing what they used to do
- Your friend seems very unhappy
- They have increased how much alcohol they are drinking or are taking a lot of drugs
- They are very angry – either at others (perhaps at you) or at themselves (punching walls etc)
- They have very high expectations of how they should be at university and this puts a lot of pressure upon them
- Your friend is being very secretive
- They are wearing inappropriate clothes for the time on year (e.g. always long sleeves to hide cuts on arms)
- You find scissors, razors, broken bottles, knives in their room
It can be hard to know what to do in these situations but the acronym ALDOER can help
Ask. Asking if a person feels suicidal is very unlikely to put the idea into their head, and they may feel relieved to talk.
Listen. Take what your friend says seriously, and try to understand their perspective of the situation. Your friend may be able to tell you what they need and who might help.
Discuss. Try to discover what might make a difference without imposing your solutions on the situation.
Offer practical help towards problem solving - e.g. if you’re worried about missing a deadline, let us both go and speak to your tutor tomorrow.
Encourage. Try and get your friend to seek help and talk to someone they trust.
Refer. Do not take sole responsibility for the situation. Sensitively indicate that you are concerned enough to arrange for further help, even if it means breaking a confidence.
You should never take the burden of worry about a friend on your own. It is important to look after yourself! If you become overwhelmed, or are finding yourself unwell because of your concerns about a friend’s wellbeing, how can you expect yourself to be able to help? Consult NUI Galway’s ‘Worried About a Friend’ page for further information on how to approach such a situation.
I am worried about myself and the fact that I have been self-harming
One thing to remind yourself, if ever you feel a desire to self-harm, is that, if you feel that you are given control by your choice to self-harm, you also have total control over your choice not to. By choosing not to harm yourself, by allowing that control to be there, you can allow yourself to feel a level of control. You can start applying that to other elements of your life, which may allow you to realise that you have more control over your life than you may initially have felt.
If you find it difficult to stop self-harming, The Butterfly Project is a very effective method of over-coming that desire.
Talk to someone! Sometimes it may feel that you are alone with your woes and that no one will want to listen to, let alone understand, what is going on inside your mind that is leading you to want to self-harm. This is not the case. If you feel that you would be there for someone if they were in a time of need, what makes you feel that they would not be there for you? Your friends will care about you, as will your family. They will want you to feel as good as you can feel, and if you are feeling low, lost, scared or depressed, they would want you to feel that you could talk to them about it. Do not fear bringing it up with a friend or family member. You will be amazed at the relief you feel even by just saying how you feel out loud, before they even respond. If you feel that your issues with self-harm and the root causes behind it may need a more professional opinion, then you should also know that NUI Galway’s Student Counselling Service, Student Health Unit and Chaplaincy are more than willing to discuss the matters with you and to set you on the path to wellness.