Samaritans brought together civil servants, health professionals and third sector organisations to discuss policy solutions to increasing rates of self-harm, particularly among young people
Self-harm, suicide and Samaritans
The current rising rates of self-harm are hugely concerning to Samaritans. Samaritans defines self-harm as any deliberate act of self-poisoning or self-injury carried out without suicidal intent. This definition acknowledges that people have different motivations for self-harming, that for many, self-harm is a response to difficult circumstances or trauma, without forming part of a plan to end their lives.
Although we use this definition, one of the reasons that we are so concerned about the rising rates is that people with a history of self-harm are at increased risk of suicide. While most people who self-harm don’t go on to die by suicide, self-harm is nevertheless a strong predictor of future suicide.
Unfortunately we know that self-harm is becoming more common. In England, the proportion of people saying they had self-harmed at some point in their lives nearly tripled between 2000 and 2014 to over 6%.
There have been particular increases among young women; latest official statistics found that one in four women 16-24 years old report having self-harmed at some point. Self-harm also features regularly when people contact Samaritans for support. In 2018, almost one in ten contacts to Samaritans involved discussion of self-harm. This rises to one in four for contacts from under 18s.
We know that the great majority of people who have self-harmed never receive formal medical support. As such, this is a problem which largely stays hidden in communities.
These figures are stark. The hidden nature of the issue, and rising rates, especially in light of the strong link between self-harm and suicide, should be a call to action for us all.
In response, alongside our 24-hour helpline and outreach work, Samaritans is undertaking a programme of research into self-harm which will shape our policy and influencing.
No-one who self-harms should have to cope without proper support. We want to find out what help is currently available and how this can be strengthened and expanded to ensure that everyone who self-harms gets the right support at the right time.
We’ve put out a survey to gather insight into the experience of people after they’ve self-harmed. We know that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum so we’re also analysing our anonymous caller data, to find out more about how self-harm interacts with other issues that callers might raise. We will follow this up with interviews with people who have self-harmed, getting their opinion on what system changes are needed.
This workshop was a chance to discuss what we’ve found so far with experts in the area of self-harm prevention, especially among young people.
Questions to take forward
There were some clear themes and questions which came up in the session:
- What should a care pathway look like for someone who self-harms?
- Should self-harm always be met with a clinical response? How should social prescribing be used?
- Who should decide whether a person receives community or clinical support? What is the role for teachers, youth workers and other non-clinical actors?
- What role does government have in challenging stigma around self-harm and encouraging help seeking?
These are complicated questions which require nuanced responses. We are in the early stages of this work, but we believe that collaborating with other organisations, sharing data, insight and expertise will help get us closer to sustainable, practical solutions.
Listening to the views of people who have self-harmed and continue to self-harm will be crucial in making sure that Samaritans and other organisations get this right. We’ll be continuing to involve people with lived experience and frontline professionals in our research and influencing work.
Samaritans' survey into experiences of self-harm