March 3, 2009
CARL O'BRIEN, Social Affairs Correspondent
HEALTH SERVICES need to be more understanding of the needs of thousands of people who end up being treated for self-inflicted injuries every year, a seminar heard yesterday.
There are about 11,000 presentations to casualty departments across the State each year, according to official figures compiled by the National Suicide Research Foundation.
However, experts say this figure represents only a small proportion of actual self-injury, the majority of which does not come to the attention of health or social service providers.
Pieta House, a Dublin-based organisation which provides support and counselling to those affected by self-injury, estimates the real number of people affected may be closer to 60,000 a year.
Research presented at a seminar in Trinity College Dublin yesterday heard that many people who avail of services feel the underlying causes of self-injury, such as abuse or trauma, are ignored
Clare Shaw, a former sufferer who went on to found harm-ed, a UK-based self-harm awareness and training group, said people in distress need to be treated with compassion and offered counselling or other supports.
“There are often heavy-handed or punitive responses, on the basis that if you treat someone badly or with hostility, they won’t do it again. That can involve sectioning someone or tranquillising patients,” she said.
“These are people in distress and they need to be treated with care and concern. Services need to be more understanding and to listen to people’s stories and help them with psychological or psychiatric support, where necessary.”
Dr Kay Inckle, of TCD’s school of social work and social policy, said while there was increasing recognition of self-injury in Ireland, there was still no policy or best-practice model across services.
“This gap provides an opportunity to develop progressive strategies to support people who self-injure and those who work or live with them,” she said.
Dr Inckle said she hoped the conference would raise awareness around self-injury and help policies and services to respond effectively and meaningfully.
Karl Tooher, a therapist with extensive experience of working with people who self-injure, said the quality of services available at present varies widely.
In addition, he said there were often misconceptions over self-harm which can be seen in the many different terms used to describe it such as “attention-seeking behaviour” or “para-suicide”.
Mr Tooher said a major challenge facing health services will be to secure sufficient resources to respond properly and to direct people to appropriate forms of support.
However, the conference heard that most services do not differentiate between attempted suicide and self-injury, which are typically very different things.
In addition, many do not have the capacity or resources to respond to people’s needs given the pressures on the health system.
As a result, there is often widespread confusion among health professionals in relation to the meaning of self-harm, its purpose in someone’s life and how best to respond to it, Mr Tooher said.