Should people be allowed to self-harm?

People who self-harm may benefit from being given sterile cutting implements and education on how to injure themselves more safely, according to a mental health researcher.

PhD student Patrick Sullivan believes that some people should be allowed to continue to injure themselves as part of a harm reduction regimen.

He says this approach is less confrontational, more respectful of autonomy and potentially less harmful than the traditional approach of forcibly stopping the person.

Mr Sullivan, from the University of Manchester’s Centre for Social Ethics, says high rates of self-injury among people admitted to mental health units suggest that the standard method of dealing with this behaviour is not working.

“There is a strong moral reason to consider alternatives,” he writes in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

While he concedes the evidence for it is weak or indeed, not available, he believes harm minimisation is a more realistic and pragmatic response to the problem.

Restriction can make the problem worse, he says, because it can intensify patients’ feelings of powerlessness.