Risk and responding to self injury: is harm minimisation a step too far?

Patrick Joseph Sullivan

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    The purpose of this paper is to consider some of the legal implications of adopting a harm minimisation approach in supporting people who self-injure within inpatient mental health units. It is argued that a focus on risk and the increasing influence of the law and legal styles of thinking often associated with the allocation of blame have produced a more risk adverse clinical environment. As a result health professionals are more likely to err on the side of caution rather than engage in practices that although potentially therapeutic are not without their risks.

    The analysis draws on the clinical, philosophical and legal literature to help understand how harm minimisation may support people who self-injure. It considers some of the complex medico-legal issues that arise in a clinical environment dominated by risk.

    A focus on risk and accountability has produced an environment where the law and legal styles of thinking have come to influence practice. This is often associated with blame in the minds of the health professional. Given the legal obligation to prevent suicide, health professionals may take a conservative approach when working with people who self-injure. This makes the adoption of harm minimisation difficult.

    This paper provides a legally informed analysis of some of the challenges associated with using harm minimisation techniques with people who self-injure. It adds to the literature regarding this area of clinical practice.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-11
    JournalJournal of Mental Health Training, Education and Practice
    Issue number1
    Early online date14 Jan 2019
    Publication statusPublished - 2019


    • Suicide
    • Risk
    • Self injury
    • Harm minimization
    • Rabone


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