Self-harm, autism and “personality disorder”

  • June 17, 2024

It isn’t uncommon to find personal accounts of the experience of being diagnosed with autism in adult life. Typically, such accounts comment on what a shame it is that the author wasn’t diagnosed earlier in life – perhaps because they are female and autism was thought to be near non-existent in girls. Quite often the benefit (or the one assumed to have been missed) comes from the simple fact of being able to put a name to difficulties in day-to-day experience of which the individual is already aware but for thinking about which they had no vocabulary.

One subset of these accounts comes from people whose experience, perhaps not so day-to-day, has come from contact with mental health services. The new diagnosis sheds light on what has been problematic about previous encounters and (with luck) what might be done differently in the future.

To a considerable extent in psychiatry (and to some extent in the whole of medicine) diagnosis depends upon pattern-matching. It can work well to produce quick results in situations where speed is important, but it can go wrong. For example, a topic of much recent discussion has been the problems caused because diagnostic “patterns” are derived from clinical practice and research that privileges male examples. In relation to autism the problem is that the presentation of distress does not match the expected pattern – social awkwardness, apparent lack of engagement, seeming detachment, coupled with difficulty in articulating the emotional problem, these do not create the picture we are taught to anticipate in somebody during an emotional crisis.

One area where this can play out is in the assessment of self-harm. It isn’t clear how common it is, but it is likely that at least for some people the mismatch between expected and actual presentation of distress leads to a diagnosis of (guess what) personality disorder. Recently I was alerted to a blog discussing this possibility. I liked it for two reasons. It concludes with noting that “autism” in this context is a way of naming “difference rather than defect or disorder”. I prefer this approach to the alternative “BPD is really … (cPTSD, autism or whatever)” because of its emphasis on the need to consider diversity rather than diagnosis; the former applies to everybody while the latter does not. And, unusually in my reading experience, it offers some practical (and realistic) advice about what to do if you are in this predicament.

An important question raised by this thoughtful blog is the possibility of challenging and overturning a previous diagnosis of personality disorder. Not, I gather, a suggestion that has played well with the clinicians with whom it has been raised so far, but I have the impression that the blog’s author, fortunately, won’t be giving up the attempt any time soon…

What exactly is empathy in clinical practice?

  • February 19, 2024

In a recent British Journal of Psychiatry editorial summarising key points from the latest NICE guideline on management of self-harm, the authors led with a section headed “The need for empathy” – a rallying call that seems on the face of it unproblematic. Empathy is however underspecified in their article (as it so often is in psychiatry) both in terms of its defining features and in relation to what exactly should be the interventions to ensure it happens.

Interestingly the word empathy appears for the first time only in the supplement to the OED. It has gained currency since then but with a rather blurry feel-good meaning. The OED defines empathy as: “The power of entering into the experience of…emotions outside ourselves”. An early use referred to the experience of a work of art, the ability to “feel oneself into it”. These definitions too are rather hard to grasp but they suggest a state that it is unrealistic to expect a clinician to achieve – especially in relation to somebody met only briefly and in unusual circumstances, whose emotions and responses to them are likely to arise from experiences well outside the clinician’s own.

Some people claim that they can teach healthcare professionals how to be empathic. What it seems to boil down to is usually something like being attuned to implicit or non-verbal expressions of emotion, acknowledging and responding to them. This of course isn’t empathy but a sort of social practice. For that reason the more sophisticated versions of acknowledging and responding to patients has been likened to method acting.

Instead of continuing with this (frankly rather pretentious) focus on empathy, there are some less nebulous aspects of sensitive and non-aversive care that can be taught.

First is courtesy and professionalism. These, unlike empathy, can be taught and supervised by attention to behaviour – how to introduce yourself, asking how the patient wants to be addressed, paying attention to privacy and confidentiality and so on. And if that fails there is a question about lack of professionalism for which there are other remedies.

Second is being well-informed about causes and consequences. My own experience suggests that many clinicians are not au fait with what is now known about reasons for self-harm – in the sense of what its functions might be. One indication is the frequency with which discussions centre around diagnosis, which is except in a minority of no help in understanding what is going on. Another is the persistence of stereotypes about self-injury. It is difficult to undertake a sensitive and meaningful psychosocial assessment if you don’t know what you’re looking for. I wouldn’t downplay the importance of person-centred care or the value of service user involvement in training, but clinically oriented postgraduate education also needs to develop in this space. This sounds too fact-based to have anything to do with “empathy” but then I have always thought that a better word than empathy is sympathy – the sense of feeling onside with somebody that comes from a shared understanding of the situation. And how to elicit that shared understanding can be taught.

Third is the question of competence in practice and here there is a real challenge. Hardly anybody provides comprehensive psychological or psychosocial treatment services in the post-acute period – not in liaison psychiatry where most acute presentations are seen, nor in clinical psychology, nor in CMHTs. Good management involves, for sure, a professional attitude and behaviour and sound knowledge both about therapies and about the specific problem being tackled – but also the generic (transferable) skills, behavioural and emotional repertoire and expertise that come from experience. How can we enhance care in this area if we don’t provide the services within which all this can be developed?


If we are to improve how we treat people we need to go beyond rather general appeals to good practice. We need to develop self-harm services and to specify the curriculum for education and supervised training that will develop those working in such services to act professionally and sympathetically, as well as with a competence derived from education and from experience in practice.  

The Online Safety Bill is supposed to protect young people with mental health problems: how will we judge if it has any effect?

  • October 19, 2023

After a long public and political debate about what form legal regulation of social media should take, the UK’s Online Safety Bill (2023) has passed into law. One of its highly-publicised aims is to protect young people from harmful exposure to content likely to lead to lowering of mood and an increased risk of self-harm and perhaps suicide. Now that we have moved to the stage of implementing the measures outlined in the Bill, how will we know if it is achieving its aim of reducing severe mental health harms to young people?

Our research and that of others, published in a multi-author book this month, suggests that the answer to this question will not be easy to establish. Preoccupation with the need to suppress harmful content has not led to great precision in the definition of what constitutes harmfulness, or of what we can think of as the social in social media – including the ways in which social media are used and by whom. Little attention has been paid to the problem of unintended consequences, and especially the possibility that regulation might lead to loss of positive aspects of social media use. And we are unclear what measures of outcome will be feasible.

In the early years of this debate we were working with a doctoral student whose thesis involved an analysis of more than 600 images posted on social media with a tag that included self-harm. Our student’s findings suggested a more interesting, in some ways surprising and more complicated picture than was reflected in the public debate. While communication of distress was common so were stories of recovery and many of the associated comments were encouraging and supportive. The posts identified were by no means restricted to explicit discussion of self-harm and in more than half the accompanying image did not represent self-harm directly – labelled with the self-harm tag were discussions of a range other topics including the nature of gender and the female body and concerns about identity and belonging. Even when tagged as “self-harm”, the space was being used to discuss these other matters of emotional concern to young people.

We decided to follow this single study with a review of the research literature to explore the issues further. The review was undertaken on behalf of the mental health charity Samaritans and explored the relation between social media use and mental health, and in particular the effect of accessing content about self-harm and suicide. We found that the nature of this content was diverse. There was content that would universally be considered harmful, such as detailed description or video streaming of methods and active, explicit encouragement to act. However, there was little evidence that much of the content in isolation could be considered unambiguously harmful.

When looking at outcomes of exposure to self-harm and suicide content, we found that previous research studies have indeed identified negative consequences – the reliving of distressing personal experiences, a sense of pressure to present oneself in certain ways or to offer help to others when one was not in a position to do so, sometimes a stimulus to further, perhaps more severe, self-harm. But research also identified positive aspects of the social media experience – a feeling of reduced isolation and support from a community of people sharing similar experiences in a non-judgmental way, the opportunity to achieve some self-understanding through recounting personal experience online, and for some people access to practical advice such as details of helping agencies or guidance on hiding scars.

It was also clear that an important influence on outcomes was not just the content of social media but the way in which they were being used – such as the intensity of interaction with other posts and the amount of time spent online, and the interactions with and reactions from others to content posted. At least as important as harmful content is whether social media use leads to connection but to an unhelpful online community, to trying for connection but failing to find a community with which to identify, to being harangued for sharing experiences, or to asking for help that isn’t forthcoming. It is unclear how such experiences could be regulated or their effects mitigated except by the individual online.

There are formidable challenges in researching this area, not least that social media are valued by many people because of their anonymity, and it is difficult to apply high quality research methods to unbiased samples. For this reason we decided that it would also be valuable to gain a wider understanding of expert opinion across this field. In other words we wanted to know if there is a consensus among experts studying the relation between social media use and mental health about what can and cannot be considered harmful and what would be the most desirable responses to this relatively new feature of the social landscape. We approached academics known for their interest in the area, and the result is the multi-author book edited by us – Social Media and Mental Health  and published by Cambridge University Press.

Some of the issues raised include not just the content of postings but the great diversity in who accesses or posts, how they use social media and how they respond to specific content: outcomes cannot readily be attributed either to content alone or to the person alone – they are likely to arise from the interaction between content, person and context. While a central issue is algorithmic pushing which increases duration and intensity of exposure, there remains no specific definition of degree and type of exposure when it comes to this social aspect of a regulatory framework.

Another aspect of social media use that was under-explored in earlier public debate about the Online Safety Bill was the role of social media as a source of positive help. At the time of our own review into online resources for self-harm, we found that most sites were extremely limited in what they offered as practical help to people seeking it. Positive resources need to move beyond encouragement to take care and to seek professional help. What our contributors describe is their involvement in programmes of work that serve as a pointer to the next generation of online resources – developed on sound theoretical grounds and principles of practice and involving young people in determining format and content.

In addition to these challenges in monitoring to the form and content of online experience, there is a question of how to assess outcomes. Rates of distress, of self-harm or of suicide in young people are likely to fluctuate, but how would we know if any improvement could be attributed to the recent legislation? An associated reduction in accessing certain social media content might be taken as evidence, but correlation is not proof of causation and there are other interpretations of such an observation.

For all these reasons, we are left uncertain whether it will prove possible to evaluate the effect of the Online Safety Bill on the mental health of young people. That is, in terms of processes, whether we will be able to identify changes that incontrovertibly represent reduction in harmful content and harmful types of social media use, that do not have the unintended consequence of reducing access to helpful online interactions, and that increase the availability of genuinely helpful resources. And in terms of outcomes, to identify changes in rates of mood disturbance, self-harm or suicide that can be attributed to the effects of legislation.

Medical assistance in dying is another name for physician assisted suicide

  • February 8, 2023

The rebranding should not blind us to the risks involved.

The argument for what is now called ‘assisted dying’ is often framed in terms of personal autonomy – the right to choose the time and mode of one’s death.

Individuals included in media reports as pressing for that right are typically mentally competent, educated, and supported by a partner or family member who affirms their desire to die. Campaigners pressing for change suggest (at times in strikingly gothic terms) that if their wishes are denied, the likely alternative is a difficult death during which pain is inadequately treated and distressing symptoms are mismanaged. ‘Assisted dying’ is thereby positioned as a form of patient-centred care – a death with ‘dignity’.

Put like this, the case can seem incontrovertible. Who wouldn’t want a ‘dignified death’ in which their own wishes were central to any decisions about their treatment? But this is a narrow and unbalanced way of framing the discussion; it fails to communicate the full range of questions that arise when thinking about serious illness. “Assisted dying’ is a euphemism for physician assisted suicide; it involves prescribing lethal drugs to somebody who will then self-administer them to end their life. Framing the practice like this gives a different perspective that is masked by the rebadging as assisted dying. What we know about suicide more widely becomes relevant in informing what we think about doctor-assisted suicide.

People living with severe, persistent physical illness can of course feel that their condition is intolerable. Indeed, research shows that about one in ten describe having thoughts that their life is not worth living, or that they might be better off dead. And suicide rates in people with a severe health condition are double those of the general population.  Even so, recent data from the Office for National Statistics suggest that in absolute terms fewer than 10% of suicides are in people with a severe health condition. Some of the study findings come as a surprise; for example of 17,195 suicides identified from 2014-2017, only 58 (0.3%) were in people with what the study called low survival cancer. This is about three times the general population suicide rate but accounts for only 3 in every 10,000 of those recorded as having low survival cancer in the study period. In other words the great majority of people (more than 99%) with negative thoughts about their circumstances do not take their own lives.

What does research into suicide in the wider population suggest might make suicide more likely? Many of the leading risks are social – loneliness, living alone, low income and lack of employment, and a lack of social support. A history of problems with alcohol or drugs is also common, especially in men. So is a history of mental health problems – typically not psychotic illness but recurrent episodes of depression. More than half of those who take their own lives have a history of previous self-harm. These risks are also prominent when suicide occurs in the setting of severe physical illness, even among those who are simultaneously in contact with mental health services.

Suicide associated with severe physical illness occurs most commonly in the first year after diagnosis, especially in the first six months. This observation is in line with research showing that rather than intolerable and untreatable symptoms it is concerns about the future and loss of independence that motivate many requests for physician-assisted suicide.

US psychologist Thomas Joiner has outlined an influential interpersonal theory of suicide that makes much sense of these findings. He outlines three risks for suicide – thwarted belongingness (closely-related to the idea of lack of social connectedness), perceived burdensomeness, and acquired capability (overcoming the fear of death). Thinking about suicide in this way helps us to be clearer about the nature of suicide in the physically ill and therefore ‘assisted dying’, which is a risk for exactly those people whose suicide we are used to working to prevent, by actively helping people to “acquire capability”.

The response to these concerns rests upon assurances that only carefully selected cases will be accepted into a programme of assisted suicide. We can have no confidence that such “safeguards” will be adhered to.  For example in one study from the Netherlands, 12% of those accepted failed to meet the criterion of there being no alternatives for palliative treatment and 7% were not reported has experiencing unbearable suffering. I have yet to see a statement from supporters of medical assistance in dying about their opinion on what is an acceptable error rate in the system.

There is another reason for concern about doctor-assisted suicide – less tangible perhaps but with far-reaching consequences. It fundamentally changes our approach to suicide, Under the Suicide Act 1961 an act “intended to encourage or assist suicide” is a criminal offence. There are no exclusions – it is an all-encompassing approach that is reflected in our National Suicide Prevention Strategy. What is proposed is a radical overhaul of the way we approach suicide – a move away from trying to prevent all instances to a world in which we attempt to prevent suicide except when we decide to make it easier.

We are facing in medical assistance in dying a privileging of personal preference over social concern. It represents not just a modification of individual clinical practice but a societal intervention designed to change how we think about and respond to suicidal wishes. I find it hard to believe that the longer-term consequences, intended or otherwise, will be of universal benefit to those most in need of our care.

A book about suicide research and a suicide researcher

  • November 2, 2022

Rory O’Connor is a health psychologist who has published extensively on suicide. He is also active in discussions about suicide aimed at the general public and about suicide prevention policy, especially in Scotland where he lives and works.

His book When it is Darkest: why people die by suicide and what we can do about it  is divided into four parts, covering the main facts (and misconceptions) about suicide, its main causes, what preventive interventions might be effective, and supporting people who are suicidal or who are living in the aftermath of the suicide of somebody close. Further resources are mentioned throughout and there is a list at the end. The emphasis, especially when considering causes, is on the psychology of suicide and includes a review of the author’s own framework for organising the disparate associations with suicide into what he calls the Integrated Motivational-Volitional Model.

O’Connor’s aim is to combine personal and professional perspectives. The style is informal, written in the first person. Interspersed throughout are anecdotes about his personal experiences, his contacts with people who have felt the impact of suicide in another or of feeling suicidal themselves, and his career in suicide research. At the same time it is in parts quite technical and ends with 48 pages of academic references, with a leaning towards his own research.

The book covers a lot of ground without being exhaustive or exhausting, especially of course in its review of prevailing psychological theories. And it offers a sustained attack against fatalism in the face of suicide and the apparent impossibility of eradicating it: we can move to understand more and to develop effective prevention strategies.

No book like this can be entirely comprehensive but there are some important gaps. There is too little on the personal and social impact of drug and alcohol misuse, either as a risk for the individual or as part of the reason people become isolated or alienated from social support. Mental disorder and its treatment may not be the most important part of suicide prevention but even so it deserves more consideration than it gets. Many of those who die have been in contact with helping agencies – GP, the mental health services, university counselling services or whatever – and there is not much here about how such services might do better or what families feel about this aspect of how tragedy might have been prevented. Suicide needs to be seen in social and cultural context if we are to focus public health interventions. Psychology can’t explain the wide regional variation in rates, and some of these wider issues feel undercooked. In a laudable attempt to combat negativism the effectiveness of suicide prevention interventions is overstated.

What about readership? It requires high levels of general and scientific literacy and that will limit its utility. The presentational style will not suit everybody. I personally didn’t like the idea of calling suicide The Big S.  I also wasn’t keen on the idea that suicide is not usually about the desire to die but about the desire to end suffering. After all “suicide” means death as the result of an act intentionally designed to end life, so this is a paradox that on close inspection just doesn’t make sense. There are few accessible books on suicide for the general reader (Mark Williams’ Cry of Pain is one, and the Help is at Hand booklet for those bereaved by suicide is excellent); this text will therefore find a place as a useful review for the interested and well-educated non-specialist.

Social media and mental health: we need much more attention to the detail of what regulation might entail

  • October 25, 2022

Coverage in the mainstream media of the findings of the Molly Russell inquest concludes that the case is now made for direct action on regulation. However, in these and other similar pieces there has been little discussion of what specifically such regulation might entail or of the challenges of implementation. Here is a sample from just one newspaper:

Why is it so hard to say specifically what should be done? For sure there will be resistance from the tech companies, but an additional dilemma is that much of the content under consideration (about depression, self-harm and suicidal thinking) is seen as helpful by those who use social media – valued for its 24/7 availability and anonymity and for the supportive nature of sharing and viewing user-generated content. The challenge therefore is to eliminate the negative impact of social media without blocking access to its helpful elements.

Although the main emphasis in discussions about regulation has been on harmful content, that is only one of three aspects of the problem to be considered.

A central issue is algorithmic pushing which increases duration and intensity of exposure. We know that people with existing mental health problems are more likely to spend long periods online and more likely to use sites with content related to self-harm, and there is some evidence that such extended exposure makes matters worse. So, what limits should be set on these quantitative aspects of social media viewing?

The question of what to do about algorithmic “recommendations” is confounded with one about content. It is generally accepted that it would be no bad thing if searches for key terms (self-harm, suicide and so on) were to trigger responses offering links to helpful resources, which raises the question of how to identify specific content as helpful (OK to recommend) or harmful (not OK). In relation to moderation of content, harmfulness is usually defined by terms like glamourising, normalising and encouraging. These words are used without definition and yet proposed as the main criteria upon which any duty of care will be judged. How are they to be defined and identified in ways that don’t just rely on individual opinion?

Monitoring and responding to problematic patterns of use is a key issue in debates about online gambling – how to achieve it without driving away those who resent the idea of surveillance and loss of privacy?

Journalists may not see it as their job to grapple with these questions. Here are three suggestions from non-journos whom we might consider as having something important to say:

The coroner in Molly Russell’s case issued a prevention of future deaths report:- in which he said:

“I recommend that consideration is given by the Government to reviewing the provision of internet platforms to children, with reference to harmful on-line content, separate platforms for adults and children, verification of age before joining the platform, provision of age specific content, the use of algorithms to provide content, the use of advertising and parental guardian or carer control including access to material viewed by a child, and retention of material viewed by a child.”

The government’s plans are to be found in its Online Safety Bill. At the point at which they published their last factsheet (April 2022) on the topic, this is what they had to say:

“Platforms likely to be accessed by children will also have a duty to protect young people using their services from legal but harmful material such as self-harm or eating disorder content. Additionally, providers who publish or place pornographic content on their services will be required to prevent children from accessing that content.

The largest, highest-risk platforms will have to address named categories of legal but harmful material accessed by adults, likely to include issues such as abuse, harassment, or exposure to content encouraging self-harm or eating disorders. They will need to make clear in their terms and conditions what is and is not acceptable on their site, and enforce this.”

The coroner’s report covers all three bases in some ways but shares an important feature with the much more limited Online Safety factsheet – undesirable content is identified by the single word “harmful” which is not defined apart from a suggestion in the factsheet that it is likely to include “encouraging” which isn’t defined.

Multiple charities with an interest in the mental wellbeing of young people wrote a letter to the then prime minister Liz Truss in October, in which they attempted to unpack the idea of harmfulness in a constructive way:

“We are writing to urge you to ensure that the regulation of harmful suicide and self-harm content is retained within the Online Safety Bill…[defined as]

  • Information, instructions, and advice on methods of self-harm and suicide  
  • Content that portrays self-harm and suicide as positive or desirable
  • Graphic descriptions or depictions of self-harm and suicide.”

The first two criteria look as if they ought to be amenable to careful definition; “graphic” is more problematic. One person’s clear and vividly explicit detail is another’s matter-of-fact account. Or does it mean – any image (depiction) at all, that is not shaded/pixelated or whatever – descriptions of how to look after or conceal your wounds for example?

There seem to me to be two risks here. The first is that decisions will be left to Ofcom and (presumably) to the courts. The second is (perhaps less likely) that the tech companies will decide they can’t be bothered with all this and will go for some variant of blanket suppression of interactions about self-harm and suicide. Neither is desirable: the former if it leads to the sort of adversarial debate that failed to clarify these questions during the inquest, the latter if it ends up denying access to helpful content. There is emerging research that can contribute and health professionals should lead in arguing for its inclusion in decision-making, so that a realistic balance is struck between risks and benefits of social media in an important areas of public health policy.

New NICE guidelines on self-harm: show it’s not possible to hit three targets simultaneously

  • October 9, 2022

Writers of NICE guidelines have to take on three tasks. They have to marshal the evidence and integrate new findings into the existing guidance. They have to present their findings in different formats to suit different audiences. And they have to ensure that any guidance can reasonably be taken up, by taking into account such research as there is on barriers to implementation.

In the context of self-harm these tasks are more than usually demanding. Most obviously there just isn’t that much new evidence – a symptom of underfunding as much as it is of researcher indifference or incompetence. And such research as there is may be based upon populations far removed from the typical UK patient seen in ED or primary care. Much practice is therefore consensus or opinion based and new guidance cannot simply take the form – now modify treatment regime A by substitution or replacement to make Regime B.

Second, much self-harm is seen initially by practitioners who have no great depth of knowledge of self-harm theory or research; even when working in mental health services they are often generalists rather than part of a specialist self-harm team. Guidance therefore needs to take the form of clear and specific pointers to action, of a sort that does not rely on implicit knowledge.

And third, existing culture could not be described as conducive to dispassionate evidence-based practice. Influential and unhelpful ideas about personality disorder, non-suicidal self-harm or emotional instability exert a dismaying amount of influence.

It strikes me that these three demands are impossible to reconcile into a single document, as the latest NICE guidelines on the management of self-harm illustrate.

In an effort to stay based upon evidence the review recommends only two psychological treatments, neither with advice about how the recommendations will be read and implemented: CBT-informed therapy the definition of which does not take account of interpersonal factors and which will therefore be interpreted as “CBT-lite” by most people, and DBT for young people with “significant emotional dysregulation” without indicating how that will be determined in routine clinical practice or what happens to all the other young people who aren’t getting a label of emerging borderline personality.

Some of the advice to non-specialists is unhelpfully vague – I don’t think the average GP needs to be advised to refer to mental health services if they are concerned after assessment in primary care, and I don’t know that school staff will know without some specifics how to meet the recommendation that they identify “self-harm behaviours”. On the other hand some key questions – about the role of diagnosis in management decisions, how to get to the meaning of suicidal thinking with a patient, the important differences between one-off presentations in crisis and long-standing repeated self-harm, the origins and response to professional stigmatising – are hardly touched on.

Implementation challenges don’t get much of a look in. To give one example: it’s impossible to discuss how to improve self-harm services if we don’t acknowledge that aftercare is likely to require referral to CMHT who can’t/won’t see people without a “serious mental illness” or clinical psychology who won’t see suicidal people or who will if they’ll sit on a months-long waiting list.

I don’t think the problem here is primarily down to the expertise of the guideline group, which contained some experienced and sensible clinicians. A major problem resides in remit. This is a three-in-one document: a (short!) document giving a synthesis of what’s new in research; an assessment and treatment manual written with specific readers in mind (so actually a series of manuals) and a trouble-shooting guide to tackling current problems in service provision. NICE guidance just isn’t set up to meet such diverse aims and I wouldn’t therefore expect these latest guidelines to make much difference to the grim reality of service provision for people who present after self-harm.

New NICE guidelines on management of self-harm won’t lead to the changes needed – lack of investment and the culture in mental health services will see to that.

  • January 28, 2022

It is more than a decade since NICE last published guidelines on the assessment and management of self-harm, so the recently released new guidelines (out in draft for consultation) will be read with some interest.

What we find is a mixed bag. For the most part the proposals are unexceptionable, the generation of novel ideas and advice no doubt hampered by the desperate lack of funded research in the area. Some suggestions are not impressive – for example a blanket endorsement of CBT for all adult self-harm is limited to put it mildly, and the section on harm minimisation is ill-informed and muddled.

There are, however, some welcome recommendations, most notably “1.6.4 Do not use aversive treatment, punitive approaches or criminal justice 5 approaches such as community protection notices, criminal behaviour 6 orders or prosecution for high service use as an intervention for frequent 7 self-harm episodes.” – a clear response to the HIN/SIM scandal and one that will make a difference, not least because it is supported by NHS England.

My guess would be that this is the only recommendation likely to make a substantial difference to service provision in the next few years because there are two barriers to change that NICE can’t really influence – the first is lack of resources and the second is culture in mental health services.

When David Owens and I wrote a lament for the state of self-harm services in the UK my friend Nav Kapur wrote a Pollyanna-ish reply, but in truth the situation is dire. Existing services like CMHT’s and IAPT will see hardly anybody and those they see will get an appointment neither on a timescale nor in the numbers needed for the nature of the problem. Liaison psychiatry services do most of the assessment but none has the clinic capacity to arrange therapeutic follow up. The few specialist services there are will see a small number of referrals for intensive longer-term therapy but only if strict eligibility criteria are met. There are several reasons for this state of affairs, but one of them is undoubtedly lack of investment in trained staff to do the work. Against a background of government “austerity” cuts, money has been found for psychotherapy provision in the NHS (through IAPT) and for an expansion of liaison psychiatry services, but none of it has found its way into the budget for self-harm aftercare. You can come up with as many recommendations as you like about support for people who self-harm, but if there are no services to deliver that support then nothing’s going to happen.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and the other piece of the puzzle resides exactly in culture. There are plenty of people who think, and behave as if, self-harm isn’t that important and the people who do it are just a bit of a nuisance. Patient feedback about services repeatedly makes this point – ED isn’t a great place, waiting to be seen is stressful, assessment doesn’t achieve much if there are no useful services to which somebody can be pointed after the assessment, but a lot of this can be tolerated if it doesn’t come with a message of hostility or indifference from the clinician seeing you. Of course it isn’t every clinician but it’s enough…especially for those unfortunate enough to have copped a diagnosis of personality disorder.

These two things play off each other – negative attitudes lead to, or at least lead to tolerance of, poor service provision, and lack of services leads to stressful uncomfortable encounters in which it is all too easy to slip into a hostile or blaming frame of mind.

I don’t think this is all there is to it but these two factors, which I have named here rather than unpacked very carefully, seem to me a good part of why the draft NICE guidelines bring such a sense of anti-climax. Most clinical conditions are now managed in established services delivering care that might be improved by careful attention from a positive and trained workforce to standardised evidence-based practice; that’s what NICE guidelines are for. In self-harm those conditions just don’t apply. Let’s not blame the NICE guideline development team, let’s look elsewhere for solutions.

Helpful words for people who self-harm

  • August 12, 2021

Emergency Departments and their associated mental health services don’t always get good press when it comes to feedback about how they respond to people who repeat self-harm and attend for help: this leaflet which has just become available online is a positive contribution and a good example of collaboration between statutory services and the people who use them. Just the fact that there is such a leaflet is itself a positive message – saying that the service takes the problem seriously. And the content is supportive and practical – it certainly bears the hallmark of having been written by people with personal experience. Maybe a small step but nonetheless a step in the direction of building bridges and improving mental healthcare. To be emulated!!

Why are self-harm services so poor?

  • May 13, 2021

In the latest addition to the BMJ series What your patient is thinking, an anonymous contributor writes of their personal experience of seeking help for repeated self-harm: “I am more than a body to stitch up and label”. Their conclusion is familiar and depressing “I do not expect long term input from NHS mental health services anymore, but there should at least be crisis input available for self-harm”.

I say familiar because it is no news to anybody, surely, that self-harm services are not in a fit state for the scale and importance of the task they should fulfil. Of course, a significant part of the problem is the shameful under-funding of our mental health services, a policy pursued with gleeful vigour by the UK government since the banking crash of 2008. But that alone won’t do as an explanation – we have known about poor services for decades and it’s not the first time I’ve touched on the topic in my blog yet there is still no sign of real improvement. Why is it that so little changes? Apart from the serious external constraints, I see three factors that are internal to mental health services.

The first is attitudes. I’m not going to rehearse the well-known argument about negative attitudes among staff – they exist, they’re unprofessional, they’re not universal. They affect the immediate individual exchange, but in a way what’s more important is the resulting lack of priority given to self-harm services when they are in competition for limited resources. One aspect of this that isn’t often enough pointed up is the unwillingness of clinical psychology services, and more recently IAPT, to get involved. The IAPT therapies manual (v.4, 2020) only mentions self-harm once, to say that the risk needs to be assessed without saying what to do about it. A typical local IAPT service will therefore say “In line with National IAPT standards, the service does not work with…people who present with active risk of significant self-harm”.

A second problem is muddled thinking about the nature of self-harm and especially what it means to say that self-harm is non-suicidal. The big culprit here is the idea of non-suicidal self-injury and how readily what should be (if it means anything) a description of an act becomes a description of a person. The result is that repeated self-harm is not seen as serious, or at least not serious enough, to merit special attention even though it is in fact a risk for pretty much all the poor outcomes you can think of in psychiatry.

Third, and lying behind much of these other factors, is the damaging idea of personality disorder, who you are as a mental illness, and especially the idea of borderline or emotionally unstable personality disorder. Inherent to this diagnosis is the notion that somebody has a sort of inbuilt emotional instability to which self-harm is a response. This formulation comes with a downplaying of experienced life adversity as causal, and with an over-emphasis on framing responses in terms of personal responsibility rather than need for specialist help. It flies in the face of what we know about the many reasons for self-harm that simply aren’t captured by thinking of it as a symptom of an abnormal personality.

Mental health services are off the pace here. Self-harm is a hugely important mode of presentation by people who want and need help and we should rethink how we are going to respond in more effective ways than we currently do. Otherwise we’ll be reading pieces like this one in the BMJ for another 25 years.

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