Balancing Costs and Benefits: A Clinical Perspective Does not Support a Harm Minimization Approach for Self-injury Outside of Community Settings

Guest Post: Hanna Pickard and Steve Pearce

Responding to: Harm may sometimes be a good thing? Patrick Sullivan

Sullivan’s emphasis on the importance of supporting autonomy and independence among vulnerable people who self-injure is fundamental to good clinical practice. This is why some forms of harm minimization, such as encouraging reflection, responsibility, safe cutting and where appropriate self-aftercare, are uncontroversial and already widely practiced within community settings. The situation is different, however, with respect to both secure and non-secure inpatient settings. It is also different when we consider the other forms of harm minimization that Sullivan advocates, namely, the provision of self-harming instruments on wards alongside education about anatomy.

In secure (forensic) inpatient settings, it is neither practical nor ethical to provide implements that can be used as weapons to any patient, for any reason. This would be to severely compromise staff and patient safety.

In non-secure inpatient settings, patients are likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act. This raises the question of the grounds of detention. Typically, patients who self-injure are detained because they are judged to be currently at risk of life-endangering or life-changing injury. As Sullivan notes, it is not clinically or ethically appropriate to provide patients with the means to self-injure when they are in this state of mind. This means that the relevant inpatient population for which a harm minimization approach could even be considered is relatively small: those who have a standing pattern of self-injury and who are detained on non-secure units for reasons other than acute self-injury.

Sullivan suggests that the long-term benefits of facilitating self-injury for such patients may outweigh the costs. He notes that self-injury functions as a way of coping with psychological distress – which restrictions of liberty can heighten – and suggests that harm minimization may improve therapeutic relationships with staff and outcomes for patients over time. However, the potential benefits of a harm minimization approach to a particular patient must be weighed – in clinical and ethical decision-making in a non-secure inpatient setting – not only against the potential costs to that patient but also against the potential costs to staff and other patients. Consider these in reverse order.

With respect to costs to other patients, it is well-established that self-injury can be contagious. Patients who are admitted onto a ward without a history of self-injury may learn to self-injure if they see other patients doing it – this risk may be especially pronounced if self-injury is part of a therapeutic engagement with staff – and patients with a history of self-injury may learn new means. Specialist inpatient units, including one at which SP worked in the 1990s, which have employed a harm minimization approach in the past have had difficulties with patients adopting techniques from one another and self-injury escalating. Put bluntly, witnessing or even just hearing about self-injury increases the chance that people try it themselves. The impact on other patients of facilitated self-injury on wards needs to be factored into any assessment of costs and benefits.

With respect to the costs to staff, it is of course accepted that clinical work requires managing the psychological burden of treating challenging patients like those who self-injure. But facilitating self-injury through the provision of implements in non-secure inpatient settings would significantly increase this burden. Risk assessment is not an exact science and mistakes will occur – especially, perhaps, in the current NHS context where wards are both overpopulated and understaffed. If staff provide implements to people to self-injure in inpatient settings, they not only bear the psychological cost of knowing they have facilitated – and in that sense sanctioned – the process of self-injury. There will also be occasions where patients accidentally or deliberately kill themselves. Staff will then be in a position of having provided the means to this devastating outcome. Obviously by far the most important cost in such a situation is to patients. But the psychological burden of working with this risk – let alone dealing with its actual occurrence – and its potential impact on staff stress levels and burn-out will not be negligible, and again needs to be taken into account.

Finally, consider the potential costs to patients themselves. We do not deny that it is extremely difficult for patients who have a standing pattern of using self-injury as a way of coping with psychological distress to have it curtailed. No doubt, care would be improved by better awareness and attention to the impact this has on detained patients. But people self-injure not only to manage psychological distress. Self-injury is also a communication to others as well as linked to low self-esteem, negative core beliefs, and emotions like shame and self-hatred. It can both express and reinforce a person’s deeply held belief that they are bad, worthless, and deserving of punishment. This is part of its meaning. The impact of staff facilitating self-injury within a therapeutic relationship risks fuelling this mindset by implicitly sanctioning it. This risk might be mitigated in contexts where staff are highly trained and skilled in offering complex psychological interventions with vulnerable patients – as well as expertly supported and supervised – but, again, this is not a realistic expectation on today’s NHS wards.  Long-term self-injury is correlated with suicide. This is one reason why so much effort is made to address it across all mental health settings. Correlation is not causation, and we must acknowledge that mechanisms are as yet unknown, but it is natural to speculate that one reason is that self-injury maintains a negative self-concept –a known risk factor for suicide.

Indeed, even something as seemingly innocuous as education about anatomy carries risks that Sullivan does not acknowledge. In this respect, it is noteworthy that the medically trained population has higher suicide completion rates than the general population. Sullivan seems to presume that teaching someone about, for example, the important structures in the wrist, will enable them to cut with less risk. But we cannot assume knowledge is benign: rather than being used to self-injure more safely, it can, instead, be used to enable people to cut more dangerously and effectively.

The abstract principles of harm minimization are laudable, but from a clinical and practical ethical perspective, the devil is in the details. Apart from uncontroversial measures already practiced in community settings, we do not believe that – for self-injuring patients themselves, let alone when we factor in the potential impact on other patients and staff – the balance between costs and benefits tips in its favour.

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