New figures reveal hidden epidemic of self-harm

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Britain is facing a spiralling epidemic of self-harm, shocking new figures indicate. More than 170,000 people a year - most of them teenagers and young adults - seek hospital treatment after deliberately hurting themselves in apparent expressions of despair, research has found.

Britain is facing a spiralling epidemic of self-harm, shocking new figures indicate. More than 170,000 people a year - most of them teenagers and young adults - seek hospital treatment after deliberately hurting themselves in apparent expressions of despair, research has found.

The disturbing trend is exposed by figures collated by the Government's drugs and treatment assessment body, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice). It is the first time such figures have been compiled and highlights mounting concern over the rising numbers of young people turning to self-harm, in which they cut, burn or mutilate themselves in an attempt to relieve mental anguish. When experts examined the number of total years of life lost due to different conditions, self-harm and suicide was third only to heart disease and cancer.

Experts warned that the true picture was much worse even than the figures indicated, and that many hundreds of thousands more may be self-harming but failing to seek treatment.

While the rise in suicide has been well documented, the growing problem of self-harm remains a taboo subject within the health service. In an attempt to break that taboo Nice is tomorrow to release new guidelines for the treatment of people who self-harm.

The figures emerged as a damning report was published into the death of 22-year-old Sarah Lawson, who had a history of severe mental health problems and self-harming. Sarah was given an overdose by her father, James, after she was thrown out of a psychiatric unit at the end of a week in which she had tried to kill herself three times.

Mr Lawson took the agonising decision to help his daughter die after the family was driven to the brink by the lack of help available to her. The independent review of her case condemned the mental health services as dysfunctional, fragmented and patchy and said Sarah had been failed by the system.

Mental health campaigners say the case highlights the alarming lack of care available to the hundreds of thousands of young people who harm themselves. Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, said: "This really has become an epidemic and the way in which people who self-harm are treated is a national scandal. These are people who are pushed to the bottom of the treatment queue, made to feel it is their own fault and denied any real understanding of their condition."

She added: "The problem is spreading. We are not just talking about young girls cutting themselves any more: we have heard of young men gauging their flesh, drinking acid, removing genitalia. These are people in desperate need of help and we are punishing rather than treating them."

Tomorrow's report is the first effort by Nice to estimate the scale of the self-harm problem in Britain. A recent survey found that 13 per cent of all 15 and 16 year-olds had self-harmed at some point in their lives, and that 7 per cent had done so in the past year.

Dr Tim Kendall, co-director of the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, which has helped to draw up the treatment guidelines, said: "The 170,000 a year who attend A&E are really the tip of the iceberg. They are probably mainly people who have taken overdoses, but there are many, many more who may be cutting themselves or harming in other ways who do not go to hospital but try to patch themselves up.

"Even the people who attend hospital are not being treated in the way they should be, because there is not enough understanding of their problems. In some parts of the country, the treatment they receive is appalling. We have heard of people who have turned up at A&E having cut themselves, and are stitched up without anaesthetic by nurses who tell them that they cut themselves without anaesthetic, so why should they get it now?"

Half of the people who attend A&E after self-harming are sent away without any psychological assessment or follow-up. "These are people who have often been abused or neglected and have very serious problems, yet we are just patching them up and sending them away," Dr Kendall said.

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