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Self-harm a sign of emotional pain rather than cry for help

Most people who self-harm do so as a way to deal with emotional distress rather than as a cry for help, research suggests


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Most people who self-harm do so as a way to deal with emotional distress rather than as a cry for help, research suggests.

Non-suicidal self-injury affects up to 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.

A study 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.

It found that while people may harm themselves as a way to communicate with or influence others only about 23% to 33% of people who self-injure say they do this.

Ways to cope

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Manchester, the University of Liverpool, Leeds Beckett University and Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

The researchers combined data from published studies on the topic covering 10,000 people in 46 different studies.

Lead author Peter 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.

‘We believe this research has important implications on how self-injury is managed.’


Taylor P et al (2017) ​A meta-analysis of the prevalence of different functions of non-suicidal self-injury. Journal of Affective Disorders. doi: doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2017.11.073

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