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Self-injury more about coping than a cry for help

New research has revealed that most people who harm themselves do it as a way to deal with their emotional pain, rather than a cry for help.

A woman looking out of a window

While people do harm themselves as a way to communicate with, or to influence the behaviour of, others, only about 23% to 33% of people who self-injure say they do this.

The research was led by Dr Peter Taylor, from The University of Manchester, with Dr Katie Dhingra at Leeds Beckett University, Khowla Jomar, Dr Rebecca Forrester and Ujala Shahmalak at the University of Liverpool, and Joanne Dickson at Edith Cowan University, Australia.

The researchers found that between 63% and 78% of non-suicidal people who self-injure do it as a short-term strategy to ease their emotional distress.

However, though self-injuring may work for short periods, the effect can be short lived, and make matters worse in the long term.

Non suicidal self-injury affects around 13%–17% of adolescents and young adults. Studies say it is associated with a range of psychological difficulties including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Though many use it as a way to cope, it is also a risk factor for later suicide.

The team combined the data from all published studies on the topic, excluding prisoners and military or ex-military samples. The research review comprised over10,000 people from 46 different studies and is published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Dr Taylor said: “Non suicidal self-injury is a concern because it can often signal that a person is facing a great deal of distress and may not have found other ways to cope.

“Our research supports the idea that people engage in non-suicidal self-injury for a variety of different reasons. These reasons may reflect different causes and treatment needs”.

He added: “We believe this research has important implications on how self-injury is managed. Ideally, clinicians would seek to personalise the appropriate therapy to the specific reasons behind the behaviour.

“Problems coping with emotions, for example, may be helped by ’Emotional Regulation Group Therapy’ or ‘Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)’ whereas self-criticism and shame may be better  treated by Compassion Focussed Therapy.”

“But unfortunately, most practitioners only have limited access to different talking therapies."

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