Self-harm in (General) Practice

Reflections on diagnosis, self-harm and suicide; and how the complexity of defining self-harm relates to a new (open access) paper addressing General Practitioners’ accounts of responding to self-harm.

Sociology has a long history of engagement with the meanings of suicide (Douglas 1967), and a more recent history of critically exploring the meanings of self-harm (Adler and Adler, 2011; Brossard 2014). Emile Durkheim (1952/1897) famously used an analysis of official rates of suicide to demonstrate the then new science of sociology. Durkheim’s analysis rejected attempts to identify the ‘motives’ of people who appeared to have died by suicide – accounts of motivation were, he argued, untrustworthy, and changeable; while the rates themselves could be viewed as ‘social facts’.

Suspicion of motivational accounts of self-harm is preserved in many contemporary discussions of self-harm and suicide in psychiatry and health policy. For instance, the UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) defines self-harm as “self-injury or self-poisoning, irrespective of the apparent purpose of the act”. This approach contrasts starkly with the proposal in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, that ‘Non-suicidal Self-Injury’ (NSSI) be treated as a distinct psychiatric disorder.

Contrary to initial impressions, ‘self-harm’ – like NSSI – is defined in part by its relationship to suicide; though the key difference here is the outcome, rather than the ‘stated or inferred motivation’. Further, while self-harm is defined by the absence of suicide, it is also understood as closely related; people who are treated in hospital for self-harm (the minority) are statistically more likely to die by suicide in future, though still in very small numbers. The relationship between self-harm and suicide is further complicated by qualitative research with people who have self-harmed, which reports diverse and contradictory motivations. In some cases, self-harm is framed as having nothing to do with suicide – indeed it is the ‘opposite of suicide’; while other reports suggest more ambivalence or variation in their motives when self-harming (Solomon and Farand 1995).

To date, very little research had addressed how clinical practitioners – especially those working in General Practice, rather than psychiatry – navigate the complex, and contested, relationship between self-harm and suicide. In a project completed in 2014, and recently published in Crisis, myself and colleagues Caroline King, Chris Burton and Steve Platt, set out to explore just that. We interviewed 30 General Practitioners working in Scotland, exploring their experiences of treating patients who had self-harmed, and their accounts of addressing potential ‘suicide risk’ for these patients.


Potentially important differences in how self-harm and suicide risk were conceptualised emerged in the interviews. Our sample of GPs worked in diverse areas: cities, semi-rural and remote locations; areas of affluence as well as those characterised by significant socioeconomic deprivation. Those GPs who had experience working with patients who were marginalised and poor provided accounts of self-harm and suicide which addressed ambiguity and complexity: there was no clear distinction, self-harm could be suicidal, non-suicidal, neither, or both. This was related to what were termed the ‘difficult lives’ of patients living on the margins of society, many of whom indicated ambivalence about life and death. These findings reflect quantitative work which has highlighted significant inequalities in rates of suicide and self-harm between people living in affluent and deprived areas (Hawton et al 2003).

In contrast, GPs working with more affluent populations were more likely to describe self-harm and suicide as separate issues. In particular, patients who self-harmed were in some instances framed as highly unlikely to die by suicide – an account which reflects what some individuals who self-harm say (that self-harm is about ‘release’ or ‘coping’ rather than death) and official statistics which indicate that suicide is a (comparatively) rare occurrence, whereas self-harm is more frequent. What this distinction underlines is that how GPs respond to and work with definitions about self-harm and suicide may be affected by the socioeconomic contexts in which they work. For GPs working in more deprived areas, death of all kinds – including suicide – is more common, including among younger patients. In contrast, GPs working in more affluent communities are more likely to see suicides as a ‘one off’, ‘unpredictable’ event. In the paper, we argue that these different experiences, and different ‘working definitions’ of self-harm, has implications for the training of GPs around mental health, self-harm and suicide prevention.


The research was funded by the Chief Scientists’ Office of the Scottish Government, with research support from the Scottish Primary Care Research Network.



Adler, P. and P. Adler (2011). The Tender Cut: Inside the Hidden World of Self-Injury. New York, New York University Press.

Brossard, B. (2014). “Fighting with Oneself to Maintain the Interaction Order: A Sociological Approach to Self-Injury Daily Process.” Symbolic interaction 37(4): 558-575.

Chandler, A., et al. (in press, 2015). “General Practitioners’ Accounts of Patients Who Have Self-Harmed A Qualitative, Observational Study.” Crisis The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention.

Douglas, J. (1967) The social Meanings of Suicide. Princeton University Press

Durkheim, E. (1952). Suicide: A Study in Sociology. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hawton, K., et al. (2001). “The influence of the economic and social environment on deliberate self-harm and suicide: an ecological and person-based study.” Psychological Medicine 31(05): 827-836.

Solomon, Y. and J. Farand (1996). ““Why don’t you do it properly?” Young women who self-injure ” Journal of Adolescence 19: 111-119.




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