What is harm?

Everybody has the right to be safe and well-looked after. The Adult Support and Protection (Scotland) Act 2007 safeguards all vulnerable adults aged 16 or over in Scotland.

In this section

What is a vulnerable adult?

A person who is at risk of harm may find it difficult to protect themselves or their property because of:

  • A disability
  • Mental disorder
  • illness
  • Physical or mental Infirmity

Protecting against harm

Many adults vulnerable to abuse or neglect have to rely on others to help them with basic day-to-day living. Whilst the majority have excellent help and support, some are at risk of harm.

A person can be subjected to harm anywhere: In their home, where they work, in a public place place – often by the people closest to them. It can even happen in the very places tasked with the responsibility of protecting them such as a care home or day centre.

Sometimes a person is intentionally being taken advantage of. Or, it could be that their circumstances have changed and they are simply not receiving the right level of help. Harm takes many forms and not all are easy to spot.

Different types of harm

Physical harm

This is when a person deliberately hurts someone else by punching, kicking, slapping, or shaking. All of these actions constitute assault and are against the law.

Psychological harm

Words do hurt. Especially when used to frighten, threaten, humiliate or control another person.

Leaving someone who cannot cope on their own for long periods of time is also a form of psychological harm.

Financial harm

Vulnerable adults can be easy prey for thieves and bullies. Whether it’s taking a valuable piece of jewellery or a few pounds from a purse, it’s still stealing – and is against the law.

There are also less obvious forms of financial harm. A person can feel obliged to financially helping someone – whether a close family member or someone they hardly know - because they have been made to ‘feel sorry’ for them.

In extreme cases people have been pressured into changing their Will, or even signing away their property.

Sexual harm

Sexual activity requires permission, known as ‘consent’.

However, in order to give consent a person must fully understand what they are consenting to.

They also need to understand that they have the right to refuse to do anything they don’t feel comfortable with – at any time - even if they have previously given permission.

It is a serious crime to coerce, threaten or force someone to engage in any type of sexual activity.


Neglect is when someone is not being cared for properly, either by themselves or by the person or authority responsible for them. A neglected person may not have enough food to eat, be living somewhere that’s cold, dirty or damp. They may even be being denied important medical and social care. It is important the everybody gets the professional help they need, especially if they require medication.

The signs of harm