Hospital admissions for people who have deliberately poisoned themselves have almost doubled in the last decade.
New figures released by the NHS show that during 2011 there were more than 114,000 cases of self-poisoning in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (figures for Scotland are not available). In 2001 there were just 79,000 cases reported.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, self-poisoning is the most common form of self-harm treated in hospitals.
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There are numerous reasons for self-harm, but it is ultimately a coping mechanism and provides a temporary release or relief for whatever emotional or psychological problem the person may be experiencing.
It is seen as a coping mechanism to deal with other problems, offering distraction, a chance to exert control over the body, and a way of releasing and expressing emotions.
Some feel self-harm is calming when they feel overwhelmed, helping them to focus, slow their emotions down and regain control of a situation. For others it is part of a ritual that helps them feel safe.
Many use it to help bury thoughts or feelings, flashbacks or nightmares, numbing the emotions. Others see it as a form of punishment to deal with feelings of shame and guilt.
Mental illnesses such as personality disorders, depression or substance abuse can trigger self-harm.
There may be long-term or short term psychological factors that lead to self-harm. Suffering abuse, whether it be in childhood or later relationships, can often cause suppressed emotions, and self-harm can be regarded as a release for these emotions. Short-term physiological issues can include a recent bereavement, a relationship breakdown, or social factors including unemployment and poverty.
There are two common misconceptions about self-harm. The first is that self-harm is a suicide attempt. This is not the case – in fact many people self-harm as an alternative to suicide. The second is that those who self-harm are seeking attention. Again, the opposite is true. Self-harmers often go out of their way to hide and cover-up their injuries.
Getting help for self-harm
As with many mental illness, the person suffering from it needs to recognise that their behaviour is not healthy, and want to do something about it.
Self-harming is a cyclical pattern of behaviour. In order to stop someone self-harming the cycle needs to be broken. There are many methods to help someone who self-harms change the behavioural pattern themselves.
For those close to someone who is self-harming, it can be a very difficult idea to understand, and even harder to realise that the person will only change their behaviour when they are ready to. It is important to remember that the person self-harming is not doing so to punish, annoy or anger anyone else. It is a behavioural response to a particular emotion.
Confiding in someone is the first step on the road to recovery from self-harm. It doesn’t matter who the person is, but taking the first steps to breaking the self-harm cycle is far easier with someone onside
Counselling, offers an environment where the individual can talk through their problems, and establish what is at the heart of their need to self-harm. It provides a non-judgemental, completely confidential atmosphere.
Prescribed medication, such as anti-depressants, may also be given by a GP to help regulate the emotions that cause the self-harm, particularly if it is linked to a wider state of depression.