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Research questions self-harm as cry for help

Thursday, 18 January 2018

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People who injure themselves on purpose have long been regarded as ‘attention-seekers’ or engaging in a ‘cry for help’; however, new research involving Edith Cowan University (ECU) shows the majority do it to temporarily relieve emotional distress.

An international review of 46 studies with more than 10,000 participants found around three-quarters (78 per cent) of non-suicidal self-harmers used physical injury to disrupt painful mental states.

Only around 23 to 33 per cent hurt themselves to communicate with, or affect the behaviour of, others.

“There is a common idea that people who self-injure do so to seek attention, when the evidence suggests their motivations are more likely about temporary relief from emotional pain – though its effects are short-term and can make matters worse over time,” said Associate Professor Joanne Dickson from ECU’s School of Arts and Humanities.

“People cope with emotional pain in lots of different ways. Self-injury can come about when other ways of managing these feelings do not seem available or possible for the person.”

More common than most think

Associate Professor Dickson said the prevalence of non-suicidal self-injury makes it a serious mental health issue that requires greater attention.

Non-suicidal self-injury affects roughly one in six adolescents and young adults and is associated with a range of psychological problems, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Though many use it as a way to cope, it is also a recognised risk factor for later suicide.

“The practice has a profound effect on parents, friends and loved ones,” Associate Professor Dickson said.

The review involved the University of Manchester, University of Liverpool, Leeds Beckett University and ECU.

Researchers hope their findings will increase understanding of self-harmers’ motivations, inform strategies for healthcare professionals and help reduce stigma.

“We need to understand the reasons why people self-harm so that we can work with them and tailor interventions to their specific needs,” Associate Professor Dickson said.

“It is an act that is often hidden away, so we need to bring it into the light and acknowledge its prevalence – and accept that there isn’t an easy one-size-fits-all approach to treatment.”

‘A meta-analysis of the prevalence of different functions of non-suicidal self-injury’ is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

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