- Britain is facing a spiralling epidemic of self-harm,
shocking new figures indicate. More than 170,000 people a year - most of
them teenagers and young adults - seek hospital treatment after deliberately
hurting themselves in apparent expressions of despair, research has found.
- The disturbing trend is exposed by figures collated by
the Government's drugs and treatment assessment body, the National Institute
for Clinical Excellence (Nice). It is the first time such figures have
been compiled and highlights mounting concern over the rising numbers of
young people turning to self-harm, in which they cut, burn or mutilate
themselves in an attempt to relieve mental anguish. When experts examined
the number of total years of life lost due to different conditions, self-harm
and suicide was third only to heart disease and cancer.
- Experts warned that the true picture was much worse even
than the figures indicated, and that many hundreds of thousands more may
be self-harming but failing to seek treatment.
- While the rise in suicide has been well documented, the
growing problem of self-harm remains a taboo subject within the health
service. In an attempt to break that taboo Nice is tomorrow to release
new guidelines for the treatment of people who self-harm.
- The figures emerged as a damning report was published
into the death of 22-year-old Sarah Lawson, who had a history of severe
mental health problems and self-harming. Sarah was given an overdose by
her father, James, after she was thrown out of a psychiatric unit at the
end of a week in which she had tried to kill herself three times.
- Mr Lawson took the agonising decision to help his daughter
die after the family was driven to the brink by the lack of help available
to her. The independent review of her case condemned the mental health
services as dysfunctional, fragmented and patchy and said Sarah had been
failed by the system.
- Mental health campaigners say the case highlights the
alarming lack of care available to the hundreds of thousands of young people
who harm themselves. Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health
charity Sane, said: "This really has become an epidemic and the way
in which people who self-harm are treated is a national scandal. These
are people who are pushed to the bottom of the treatment queue, made to
feel it is their own fault and denied any real understanding of their condition."
- She added: "The problem is spreading. We are not
just talking about young girls cutting themselves any more: we have heard
of young men gauging their flesh, drinking acid, removing genitalia. These
are people in desperate need of help and we are punishing rather than treating
- Tomorrow's report is the first effort by Nice to estimate
the scale of the self-harm problem in Britain. A recent survey found that
13 per cent of all 15 and 16 year-olds had self-harmed at some point in
their lives, and that 7 per cent had done so in the past year.
- Dr Tim Kendall, co-director of the National Collaborating
Centre for Mental Health, which has helped to draw up the treatment guidelines,
said: "The 170,000 a year who attend A&E are really the tip of
the iceberg. They are probably mainly people who have taken overdoses,
but there are many, many more who may be cutting themselves or harming
in other ways who do not go to hospital but try to patch themselves up.
- "Even the people who attend hospital are not being
treated in the way they should be, because there is not enough understanding
of their problems. In some parts of the country, the treatment they receive
is appalling. We have heard of people who have turned up at A&E having
cut themselves, and are stitched up without anaesthetic by nurses who tell
them that they cut themselves without anaesthetic, so why should they get
- Half of the people who attend A&E after self-harming
are sent away without any psychological assessment or follow-up. "These
are people who have often been abused or neglected and have very serious
problems, yet we are just patching them up and sending them away,"
Dr Kendall said.
- © 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd