Dan Parton cutA report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) has called for people who self-harm to be treated with compassion, dignity and respect by healthcare professionals. This is long overdue and should extend to all walks of life.

You would think that it would be a given that a young person who presents at a GP surgery or A&E department would be treated with compassion and respect. But, given the RCPsych’s call (and associated report), if that person has injuries from self-harming, it seems that this is not always the case. 

This is pretty shocking, given that self-harm is on the rise in the UK; one in 12 young people are said to self-harm. In December 2012, ChildLine reported a 68% increase in cases of young people who had self-harmed and contacted the charity in the past year.

While attitudes towards self-harm and those that do it have begun to change in the past decade or so, there is still a long way to go. There are certain myths that still pervade such as that self-harm is just an attention-seeking behaviour or, worse, young people who do it are just copying the latest fashion.

In reality, self-harm is a sign that a young person is in internal pain and struggling to cope. As Dr Max Davie, a community paediatrician of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “In most cases, people who self-harm do it to help them cope with unbearable and overwhelming emotional issues. These issues can lead to a build-up of intense feelings of anger, hopelessness and self-hatred.”

The RCPsych report recommends reducing stigma and emphasised the importance of treating young people who have self-harmed in a non-judgemental and respectful manner. The organisation also recommends high-quality assessment at all levels of service to best support young people.

Crucially, the document also updates guidance on self-harm and the internet. The authors advise that it is critical for professionals to include an assessment of a young person’s digital life as part of clinical assessments, especially when there are concerns about self-harm. The internet and digital technology is playing an increasing part in young people’s lives and this has to be understood.

But it isn’t just healthcare professionals who need to be aware of the reasons and issues behind self-harm and the importance of treating someone who has self-harmed compassionately. Other professionals who regularly come into contact with young people – teachers, youth workers, social care professionals etc – should also be aware.

If a young person has a bad experience when they do go to someone about it – such as feeling judged or being seen as a time-waster – this can discourage them from seeking help again, which can mean their distress escalates.

Of course, parents should also be aware of the reasons behind self-harm and have access to resources to help them to help their child.

But, fundamentally, what is needed is the dismantling of the stigma of self-harm: these are young people in distress, and they need the help and support of all professionals to help them deal with their issues. While this may take time and effort to achieve – breaking down prejudice always does – it has to be done.

The reason why is simple. Dr Andrew Hill-Smith, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and a member of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the RCPsych, summed it up succinctly: “Our actions can make a difference for young people and turn lives around. Our actions can save lives.”