A new NIHR-funded study found that rates of non-suicidal self-harm rose in England between 2000 and 2014, from 2% of the population to 6% and suggested that the increase could lead to self-harm becoming normalised for young people. 

It called on more health and educational services to be available, and for health and other professionals to discuss self-harm with young people and encourage them to find safer ways of coping.

The increase was in all age groups in England, but particularly in young women and girls. Non-suicidal self-harm (NSSH) is deliberate, self-inflicted harm without suicidal intent. The study, funded by NIHR’s Policy Research Programme and published in The Lancet Psychiatry, found that NSSH is more common in people aged 16-24 and that the rise in rates was steepest in this group.

Previous studies in this area have used data from the health services, but one drawback of this approach is that many people who self-harm do not go to hospital. The new study used data from surveys carried out face-to-face and via questionnaire in people aged 16-74, including over 7000 people in 2000, and over 6000 people in both 2007 and 2014.

Questions included whether participants had deliberately harmed themselves without the intention of killing themselves, how they had harmed themselves, why they had done so (whether to draw attention to their situation/to change their situation, because it relieved unpleasant feelings of anger, tension, anxiety, or depression), and whether they had received subsequent medical support (general medical support, or psychological support via a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counsellor). The results show that NSSH was more commonly reported to be used to relieve unpleasant feelings than to draw attention.

No evidence of an increase in treatment

The study authors highlighted that despite finding an increase in rates of NSSH, they did not see any evidence of an increase in treatment. The proportion of people reporting no contact with medical or psychological services after self-harm stayed stable at just over 50% across the study. Women and girls were more likely to have contact with medical or psychological services, as were older people (aged 35-74 compared to 16-34).

Dr Sally McManus, a lead author at the National Centre for Social Research, said “Non-suicidal self-harm is an important sign of distress and we need to help young people learn more appropriate ways of dealing with emotional stress. The availability of services needs to be improved, especially for young people, so that health professionals can discuss the subject with them and encourage them to find safer ways of coping.”

The authors also point out some limitations to the study - stigma around self-harm may have discouraged respondents from disclosing it in face-to-face interviews, and those agreeing to take part in interviews were likely to be those who felt the topic was relevant to them.