The Hidden Epidemic ; New Figures Reveal 170,000 People a Year - Mostly Teenagers and Young Adults - Are Hospitalised after Harming Themselves in Despair

Article excerpt

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. …