National Inquiry into self-harm calls for better responses to young people

The National Inquiry today called on the Government to launch a UK-wide initiative to develop better and more appropriate responses to young people who self-harm, starting with an awareness campaign targeted at professionals, parents and young people.

The recommendation is made in Truth Hurts, the final report by the National Inquiry into self-harm, which reveals that young people who self-harm are more likely to turn to friends their own age for help, rather than relatives, teachers or GPs. Widespread misunderstandings about self-harm among professionals and relatives are preventing young people who self-harm from seeking and getting support. Yet little information is available to help parents and professionals learn to deal with self-harm effectively.

According to the Truth Hurts report, professionals and adults often react inappropriately to disclosure of self-harm, which frequently makes the situation worse. There is a tendency for adults to focus solely on the self-harming behaviour rather than the underlying causes. Young people often hurt themselves for long periods of time without ever disclosing their self-harm.

The two-year Inquiry, jointly run by the Camelot Foundation and the Mental Health Foundation, has found that health, education and social care professionals are not receiving the guidance or formal training they need to support young people who self-harm. Nor do professionals feel they receive sufficient personal support to deal with self-harm cases. The Inquiry reveals that education professionals would like information and advice about self-harm to be provided in all schools across the UK.

The Inquiry has learned that a number of circumstances can lead a person to begin self-harming, such as being bullied at school, not getting on with parents, anxiety about academic performance, parental divorce, bereavement, unwanted pregnancy, experience of sexual, physical or emotional abuse in earlier childhood, and difficulties associated with sexuality.

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Self-harm is a coping mechanism which enables a person to express difficult emotions. Young people who hurt themselves often feel that physical pain is easier to deal with than the emotional pain they are experiencing, because it is tangible. But the behaviour only provides temporary relief and fails to deal with the underlying issues that a young person is facing.

According to Truth Hurts, stopping or reducing self-harming behaviour is a long process. Alternative coping strategies need to be learned to deal with difficult life circumstances and emotions. The Inquiry’s research says that young people seeking help would like counselling, drop in centres and facilitated self-help groups to be made available. The report asserts that schools provide an appropriate setting in which young people would like to see external individuals and organisations, independent of schools, provide information and advice.

Chair of the Inquiry, Catherine McLoughlin CBE, said; “It is vital that everyone who comes into contact with young people has a basic understanding of what self-harm is, why people do it, and how to respond appropriately. At the very least they should avoid being judgemental towards young people who disclose self-harm, should treat them with care and respect and should acknowledge the emotional distress they are clearly experiencing.”

Susan Elizabeth, Director of the Camelot Foundation said: “There is an urgent need to provide information and guidance for parents and carers, friends and professionals – people are struggling in the dark. We must rid the fear, misunderstanding and stigma that surrounds self-harm.”

Dr Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said: “Self-harm is evidently a symptom of mental and emotional distress. We need to look past the behaviour and provide understanding, support and effective services for young people in the UK.”

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