Inquiring minds

Most of us think that self-harm is uncommon but according to
recent statistics it is far from unusual. Rates of self-harm among
young people in the UK have increased over the past decade making
them the highest in Europe. One in 10 UK teenagers deliberately
self-harms. That is more than two in every classroom.

In response to growing concern about the numbers of young people
self-harming, the Mental Health Foundation and the National
Lottery’s Camelot Foundation have just launched the
UK’s first ever inquiry into self-harm among 11- to

The inquiry, scheduled to last for 18 months, will take evidence
from young people, parents, carers, policy makers, service
commissioners, staff and senior managers in health, education,
social care and voluntary sector organisations.

Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation Andrew McCulloch
said: “The inquiry is needed to find out the reasons why so many
young people are deliberately harming themselves in our society.
The problem is little understood by professionals in health,
education and social care, and because of this, young people are
often not referred to experts who can help them.”

Health professionals include doctors and nurses working in
A&E departments in the UK who are being forced to become
accustomed to treating young people who self-harm. More than 24,000
teenagers are admitted to hospital in the UK each year as a result
of deliberately harming themselves.

McCulloch says: “It is our feeling, from the young people we
talk to, that medical staff simply do not know how to help. While
A&E departments now have mental health liaison teams, half of
the people admitted are not followed up.”

Beatrice*, 29, began cutting at the age of 13, as a result of
being sexually abused by her uncle. She has visited hospital on two
occasions to receive treatment and says: “Both times it was hell,
not only was I ashamed, embarrassed and upset, but the reaction I
got from the staff made it even worse. They stitched me up, but the
nurses didn’t know what to say and weren’t the least
bit sympathetic. They made me feel like I was wasting their time.
On one occasion I saw a psychiatrist but he didn’t contact me
after he said he would.”

Self-harm describes a range of acts that people do to themselves
in a deliberate and often in a hidden way, which are damaging to
the body. People self-harm because it can help to release feelings
such as anger or anxiety, and acts as a mood altering activity.

The most common methods are the cutting of the skin and the
swallowing of toxic substances such as painkillers. Other methods
include burning, scalding, hitting, scratching and hair

The onset of self-harming behaviour has been linked to
difficulties in a young person’s life such as being bullied
at school, not getting on with parents, parental divorce, abuse,
rape or bereavement.

We hope the inquiry will tell us more about which young people
are most likely to self-harm and what triggers the behaviour. The
more we know the better we can understand and help.

* All names have been changed

– Further information about self-harm can be found at

Fran Gorman is a policy officer at the Mental Health

‘Pulling my hair out has become a

Anna* is 24 and has been self-harming since she was seven years
old. “I began to pull my hair out when my parents separated. I had
to move away from the town in which I grew up, leaving all my
family behind. I went to a new school where I was bullied and it
all went on from there really. Now, 18 years later, I’m still
doing it. Pulling my hair out has become a habit nobody knows about
but me. I never thought I would still be doing it and I definitely
do it more when I’m anxious or upset. The bald patches
aren’t really noticeable. My long hair covers the patches, so
nobody knows. I just have to be careful not let people see my hair

“I never talk about it to anybody. My Mum knew about it when I
was younger but we never spoke about it properly. I don’t
think she knew what to say or what to do. I want to stop, but
I’m too ashamed to tell anybody. I doubt a GP would know what
to say and I couldn’t tell any of my friends. I don’t
know anybody else who self-harms but I don’t want to tell
anybody. I don’t want to be classified a self-harmer –
I’m scared about what people will think.”

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