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Self-harm is when somebody intentionally damages or injures their body. It's usually a way of coping with or expressing overwhelming emotional distress. Self-harm is particularly prevalent among young people with SEN.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, 10 per cent of 15-16 year olds self-harm. Hospitals in the UK report 200,000 cases of self-harming each year.

The urge can start at any age, but most people who self-harm are aged between 11 and 25. They are more likely to start if they know someone else who's done it, such as a friend or a family member. It can include cutting, burning, pinching, biting, scratching or pulling your hair out, overdosing on drugs or alcohol and making yourself sick.

Those who self-harm are more likely to end their own life than others. However, many don't want to end their lives. In fact, some experts believe self-harming may help them cope with emotional distress, so they don't feel the need to kill themselves.

Self-harming is more often than not a private act done under cover of darkness and so allegations that it is attention-seeking are wide of the mark. Often people are only discovered to be self-harming after repeated episodes when they have built up a tolerance and need to hurt themselves more to get the same release.

Common reasons for self-harm

  • Abuse: emotional, physical or sexual abuse including bullying.
  • Bereavement: death of a family member, friend, or pet.
  • Disability.
  • Emotional and mental health difficulties: worry, panic attacks, depression, anxiety, loneliness.
  • Relationships: problems with family, friends, teachers.
  • School worries and exam stress: pressure from parents and teachers, fear of failure.
  • Substance abuse: alcohol, drugs or both.
  • Gender identity or sexual orientation: uncertainty, keeping it secret, facing hostility.
  • To replace emotional pain with physical pain.

Treatment for self-harm

Like some addictions and eating disorders, the impulse to self-harm comes in waves, builds, reaches a peak and then falls away. One of most commonly used forms of treatment is to distract affected individuals by engaging them in an activity until the urge passes. Other recommendations include listening to music or writing down your feelings in a diary.

Talking to friends and experts is vital for getting access to information, hearing other people's experiences and the strategies that have worked for them. First stop is the GP who can check the injury and guide you towards specialist young people’s services, like Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Young Minds.

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