Helen Smith ~ Changing the approach to self-harm in young people

In 2006, The Mental Health Foundation reported that 1 in 12 young people self-harm. This year, YoungMinds, a mental health and emotional wellbeing charity dedicated to children and young people, have been working in conjunction with Cello PLC’s ‘Talking Taboos’ campaign to conduct extensive research into self-harm in young people. The published report entitled, ‘Talking Self-Harm’, detailed that inpatient admissions over the last year alone have risen by 10% in under young people under the age of 25. It is likely however, that numerous young people coping with self-harm remain undetected for a number of reasons addressed below, and therefore these statistics are likely to underestimate those affected.

‘Talking Self-Harm’ details that two thirds of teachers, parents and young people who took part in the research feel more uncomfortable talking about self-harm than other issues such as eating disorders, drug use, smoking, bullying and binge drinking. They would additionally be concerned that they would say the wrong thing if a young person who self-harmed turned to them. Whilst young people reportedly feel most comfortable approaching the internet for help regarding self-harm, this may be detrimental as the information available online is variable and can present dismissive attitudes rather than supportive attitudes. 50% of young people included in the research acknowledge that they should in fact be approaching parents and GPs for help instead of the internet, however only 10% said they would feel comfortable doing this.

Regarding groups in a position to offer help to a young person affected by self-harm, parents typically reported that they would perceive self-harm in a young person as failure as a parent, and a third of parents would not seek help with a health care professional.  Almost half of the GPs reported that they did not really understand young people who self-harm, whilst a third were concerned about what language to use when consulting with a young person about self-harm. Teachers reported feeling ‘helpless’ on the issue and the majority expressed that they would like clear practical advice and materials to help young people address self-harm. All groups reportedly have trouble empathising with young people who self-harm.

These points highlight serious weaknesses in the social support network and the professional help that should be available to young people who self-harm and furthermore exposes the need for us all to talk more about this sensitive topic so that we can more readily support those who need it. It is not surprising that nearly 4 out of 5 young people who completed the research said they don’t know where to turn to for advice about self-harm. It is apparent that although most people acknowledge the seriousness of self-harm, too many feel they are not in a position to offer appropriate help and support. The report calls for increased awareness and handling of self-harm in young people if we are to break down the barriers and stigma that currently prevent people from seeking and receiving the help and support they need.

Posted by:
Helen Smith
PhD Student (Division of Psychiatry)
Institute of Mental Health


The Mental Health Foundation ‘Truth Hurts’ report is freely available at:

The YoungMinds and Cello PLC’s Talking Taboos ‘Talking Self-Harm’ report is freely available at:

A BBC interview with a woman coping with self-harm is available at:



Filed under Uncategorized

4 responses to “Helen Smith ~ Changing the approach to self-harm in young people

  1. Rosemary Cantwell

    2 November 2012
    Dear Ms Smith
    I am very concerned that so many young people “self-harm” according to the survey of 2006.
    What could be available on the internet similar to “Childline” telephone help – via Skype – or App so that children and young people can approach someone in confidence and get good support from mental health professionals dedicated to helping people.
    It would need funding perhaps from the NHS and Secretary of State for Health and could be linked to crisis centres so that if referrals are urgently required, help can be at hand.
    This is just a “top of the head” response to your very worrying but essential article.
    Thank you very much for bringing this to our attention, and I do hope that you will get many responses of offers of practical help to make a good network of support for children, young people and their parents and families and friends – and the GPs and teachers.

    Best wishes
    Rosemary Cantwell

    • Helen Smith

      Dear Ms Cantwell

      I can imagine your ideas of using Skype or mobile apps to approach this issue being particularly effective because they are so accessible to young people. Since the report suggests that young people feel most comfortable using the internet to get help regarding self-harm, I would expect that young people would readily use this kind of help too. It would be very interesting to put something like this into practice. Thank you very much for your comments.

      Best wishes
      Helen Smith

  2. chrisbeeleyimh

    As someone who struggled with self harm as a teenager I take a personal interest in this issue as well as agreeing with you that it is a matter of importance to all of us.

    It is very difficult to talk about self harm, I think, for a lot of people, and self harm is quite uniquely stigmatised in a lot of ways.

    Although I have published a small amount on self harm in secure settings I’m rather ignorant of self harm in young community populations, but my sense has always been that conceptualising self harm along a spectrum with other types of behaviour such as tattooing or piercing, whatever the scientific validity of this is, would make it easier to talk about.

    Many people uncritically accept the idea that the pain and harm which come with tattoos (or even marathon running, perhaps) are a part of normal experience, and although some people would never contemplate either they feel no essential difference from those who do.

    • Helen Smith

      Dear Chris

      Thank you for your insight – as the report highlights, people in general have difficulties understanding and empathising with someone who self-harms, so the views of those who can empathise are extremely valuable. Your idea of placing self-harm on a spectrum of behaviours is an inspired one and I can imagine this would make the uncomfortable far more accessible and approachable, facilitating understanding of self-harm. When peers assume that self-harm is simply an attention seeking behaviour and subsequently take a negative attitude towards it, this can become quite overwhelming in a school environment and act almost as a barrier to a young person seeking help. If young people were able to exercise a better understanding of self-harm, it may be that more young people would get the help and support they need.

      Best wishes
      Helen Smith

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