Self-harm in children and young people

Rates of self-harm have increased in the UK over the past decade and are among the highest in Europe. Moreover, rates of self-harm are much higher among groups with high levels of poverty and in adolescents and younger adults.

All people working with children and young people, whether in schools or working for an agency or a charity are likely to encounter children or young people who self-harm at some point in their working lives. Self-harm is distressing and many who people who support and work with children feel ill-equipped to deal with it.


What is self-harm?

The straightforward definition is ‘Self-harm happens when someone hurts or harms themselves.’ They may or may not intend to end their lives and it may be a reaction to a life event or part of the way in which they are coping with distress

NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) 2004 defines self-harm as ‘self-poisoning or self-injury, irrespective of the apparent purpose of the act’. These definitions can cover a wide range of behaviours most commonly cutting, burning and ingestion of poison. Any behaviour harmful to yourself and knowingly entered into may be self- harm however. This can include such acts as potentially harmful sexual activity and remaining in an abusive relationship.

An act of self-harm may be made with a number of intentions, or combination of intentions:

  • To manage difficult emotion.

  • To communicate distress.

  • To complete suicide


Is self-harm becoming more prevalent?

ChildLine reports that the number of children disclosing self-harm has risen steadily since the mid-1990s. In the last couple of years Suffolk hospitals have seen a significant increase in the number of children attending following self-harm by self-poisoning and/or self-harm by cutting.

 Why do young people self-harm?

Often a young person cannot explain why they have self-harmed and find it hard to put into words their thoughts and feeling. Self-harm is way of expressing deep distress and shouldn’t be thought of as just attention seeking behaviour.