More support needed for people who self-harm

Becky Banham
By Becky Banham,
updated on Oct 8, 2020

More support needed for people who self-harm

Samaritans warns that mental health services in England are inadequate and more people will suffer if improvements are not made

Although it may not seem like it, at its root, self-harm is a way of protecting ourselves. As human beings, when we are hurt in some way, we have an emotional response. If this emotional need is not met, then we will find a way of coping with the pain.

Worryingly, it seems that more and more of us are turning to this method of coping with emotional distress. Self-harm rates have more than doubled since 2000 and, last year alone, self-harm was discussed in more than 272,000 calls for help to Samaritans volunteers. That’s once every two minutes.

So now, particularly in a year when more of us are facing uncertain or distressing circumstances, the challenge to improve support for self-harm could not be more urgent.

However, it seems that people who self-harm are being ‘pushed from pillar to post’, according to a new report by leading suicide prevention charity, Samaritans.

The charity spoke to over 500 people aged 16 and over as part of their research and found that many who self-harm feel let down by NHS services. A quarter (25%) of people said they sought NHS mental health support after they self-harmed but many described being ‘excluded’ from services or receiving ineffective care.

Having taken the daunting first step of seeking help, people with experience of self-harm are too often told their needs do not fit with the available provision.

The charity said that people who self-harm are deemed too high risk to access common mental health services, such as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT), the government’s flagship programme for treating common mental health disorders. But, they are also frequently not perceived to be ill enough to access community mental health teams.

As a result, people who self-harm are often caught between services – ‘ping-ponged’ between services, struggling to access appropriate care.

But, even for those who did access NHS services, support was not straightforward. Some people claimed that self-harm was often ignored or even banned as a topic. As a result, people weren’t able to develop the coping mechanisms they needed or address the underlying reasons for their self-harm.

To tackle this, Samaritans is now urging the government to improve NHS mental health services to better support people who self-harm and combat the rising rates of self-harm.

Samaritans Assistant Director of Research and Influencing, Jacqui Morrissey, said: “Self-harm is a strong risk factor for suicide – however, the majority of people who self-harm do so without wanting to end their life and as a way of trying to cope with distressing feelings.

“What our research shows is that people in serious emotional distress who self-harm are slipping through the cracks in NHS support. Having found the courage to reach out for help, this vulnerable group is being denied support because the current system is not set up to help them.”

Thanks to the pandemic, which we know has had a profound social and psychological impact on many, people are often left without access to support networks, which, ultimately, exacerbates issues.

However, until support services can meet the needs of those seeking help, there’s more that we can do. Speaking to Samaritans, many people highlighted the helpful role of friends, peers and social support in providing emotional relief in times of stress.

How to help someone who self harms

From speaking to people with lived experience of self-harm, Samaritans identified four key areas of support, which are vital to providing effective care for people who self-harm.

Remember, you’re not expected to be an expert. But, these tips can help you to point your loved one in the right direction for getting help and getting better.

  • Distract from immediate self-harm urges. If you can start the conversation about their urges, ask what triggers these feelings and if there’s anything they’d like you to do to distract them when this happens.
  • Provide emotional relief in times of stress. Be a comforting friend. Do things you enjoy together and help them to find small joys.
  • Help them to develop alternative coping strategies. Show them, kindly, that there are other ways to process their feelings.
  • Encourage them to address the underlying reasons for self-harm. Distraction can help to delay urges but, to be free from self-harm, it’s important to address how they’re feeling. Encourage them to seek help.

For more information on self-harm and to find an experienced, qualified therapist, visit Counselling Directory.

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