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.

The number of hospital admissions after people have deliberately poisoned themselves has risen by almost 50% in a decade.  All staff working with children and young people, whether in schools, universal, targeted or specialist services are likely to encounter children or young people who self-harm at some point in their working lives. Self-harm is a distressing thing to encounter and many who work in children’s services 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 (2004) defines self-harm as ‘self-poisoning or self-injury, irrespective of the apparent purpose of the act’. These definitions can encompass 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 common?

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.


Information and advice on self-harm