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Evidence on the impact of the pandemic on healthcare presentations for self-harm has accumulated rapidly. However, existing reviews do not include studies published beyond 2020.
To systematically review evidence on presentations to health services following self-harm during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A comprehensive search of databases (WHO COVID-19 database; Medline; medRxiv; Scopus; PsyRxiv; SocArXiv; bioRxiv; COVID-19 Open Research Dataset, PubMed) was conducted. Studies published from 1 January 2020 to 7 September 2021 were included. Study quality was assessed with a critical appraisal tool.
Fifty-one studies were included: 57% (29/51) were rated as ‘low’ quality, 31% (16/51) as ‘moderate’ and 12% (6/51) as ‘high-moderate’. Most evidence (84%, 43/51) was from high-income countries. A total of 47% (24/51) of studies reported reductions in presentation frequency, including all six rated as high-moderate quality, which reported reductions of 17–56%. Settings treating higher lethality self-harm were overrepresented among studies reporting increased demand. Two of the three higher-quality studies including study observation months from 2021 reported reductions in self-harm presentations. Evidence from 2021 suggests increased numbers of presentations among adolescents, particularly girls.
Sustained reductions in numbers of self-harm presentations were seen into the first half of 2021, although this evidence is based on a relatively small number of higher-quality studies. Evidence from low- and middle-income countries is lacking. Increased numbers of presentations among adolescents, particularly girls, into 2021 is concerning. Findings may reflect changes in thresholds for help-seeking, use of alternative sources of support and variable effects of the pandemic across groups.
Individuals attending emergency departments following self-harm have increased risks of future self-harm. Despite the common use of risk scales in self-harm assessment, there is growing evidence that combinations of risk factors do not accurately identify those at greatest risk of further self-harm and suicide.
To evaluate and compare predictive accuracy in prediction of repeat self-harm from clinician and patient ratings of risk, individual risk-scale items and a scale constructed with top-performing items.
We conducted secondary analysis of data from a five-hospital multicentre prospective cohort study of participants referred to psychiatric liaison services following self-harm. We tested predictive utility of items from five risk scales: Manchester Self-Harm Rule, ReACT Self-Harm Rule, SAD PERSONS, Modified SAD PERSONS, Barratt Impulsiveness Scale and clinician and patient risk estimates. Area under the curve (AUC), sensitivity, specificity, predictive values and likelihood ratios were used to evaluate predictive accuracy, with sensitivity analyses using classification-tree regression.
A total of 483 self-harm episodes were included, and 145 (30%) were followed by a repeat presentation within 6 months. AUC of individual items ranged from 0.43–0.65. Combining best performing items resulted in an AUC of 0.56. Some individual items outperformed the scale they originated from; no items were superior to clinician or patient risk estimations.
No individual or combination of items outperformed patients’ or clinicians’ ratings. This suggests there are limitations to combining risk factors to predict risk of self-harm repetition. Risk scales should have little role in the management of people who have self-harmed.
Individual- and area-level risk factors for suicide are relatively well-understood but the role of macro social factors such as alienation, social fragmentation or ‘anomie’ is relatively underresearched. Voting choice in the 2016 referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union (EU) provides a potential measure of anomie.
To examine associations between percentage ‘Leave’ votes in the EU referendum and suicide rates in 2015–2017, the period just prior to, and following, the referendum.
National cross-sectional ecological study of 315 English local authority populations. Associations between voting choice in the EU referendum and age-standardised suicide rates, averaged for the years 2015, 2016 and 2017, were examined.
Overall there was a weak, but statistically significant, positive correlation between the local authority-level percentage ‘Leave’ vote in 2016 and the suicide rate 2015–2017: Pearson's correlation coefficient, r = 0.17; P = 0.003. This relationship was explained by populations having an older age distribution, being more deprived and lacking ethnic diversity. However, there was divergence (likelihood ratio test for interaction, χ2 = 7.2, P = 0.007) in the observed associations between London and the provincial regions with Greater London having a moderately strong negative association (r = −0.40; P = 0.02) and the rest of England a weak positive association (r = 0.17; P = 0.004).
Deprivation, older age distribution and a lack of ethnic diversity seems to explain raised suicide risk in Brexit-voting communities. A greater sense of alienation among people feeling ‘left behind’/‘left out’ may have had some influence too, although multilevel modelling of individual- versus area-level data are needed to examine these complex relationships. The incongruent ecological relationship observed for London likely reflect its distinct social, economic and health context.
Complex challenges may arise when patients present to emergency services with an advance decision to refuse life-saving treatment following suicidal behaviour.
To investigate the use of advance decisions to refuse treatment in the context of suicidal behaviour from the perspective of clinicians and people with lived experience of self-harm and/or psychiatric services.
Forty-one participants aged 18 or over from hospital services (emergency departments, liaison psychiatry and ambulance services) and groups of individuals with experience of psychiatric services and/or self-harm were recruited to six focus groups in a multisite study in England. Data were collected in 2016 using a structured topic guide and included a fictional vignette. They were analysed using thematic framework analysis.
Advance decisions to refuse treatment for suicidal behaviour were contentious across groups. Three main themes emerged from the data: (a) they may enhance patient autonomy and aid clarity in acute emergencies, but also create legal and ethical uncertainty over treatment following self-harm; (b) they are anxiety provoking for clinicians; and (c) in practice, there are challenges in validation (for example, validating the patient’s mental capacity at the time of writing), time constraints and significant legal/ethical complexities.
The potential for patients to refuse life-saving treatment following suicidal behaviour in a legal document was challenging and anxiety provoking for participants. Clinicians should act with caution given the potential for recovery and fluctuations in suicidal ideation. Currently, advance decisions to refuse treatment have questionable use in the context of suicidal behaviour given the challenges in validation. Discussion and further patient research are needed in this area.
Declaration of interest
D.G., K.H. and N.K. are members of the Department of Health's (England) National Suicide Prevention Advisory Group. N.K. chaired the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guideline development group for the longer-term management of self-harm and the NICE Topic Expert Group (which developed the quality standards for self-harm services). He is currently chair of the updated NICE guideline for Depression. K.H. and D.G. are NIHR Senior Investigators. K.H. is also supported by the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and N.K. by the Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust.