Self-injurious behaviour in forensic mental health care

Authors Vivienne de Vogel , Nienke Verstegen
Published in The Journal of Forensic Practice
Publication date 10 May 2021
Research groups Working with Mandated Clients
Type Article


Purpose Incidents of self-injury by forensic psychiatric patients often have a deleterious impact on all those involved. Moreover, self-injurious behaviour is an important predictor for violence towards others during treatment. The aim of this study is to analyse methods and severity of incidents of self-injury of patients admitted to forensic psychiatry, as well as the diagnoses of self-injuring patients. Design/methodology/approach All incidents of self-injury during treatment in a forensic psychiatric centre recorded between 2008 and 2019 were analysed and the severity was coded with the modified observed aggression scale+ (MOAS+). Findings In this period, 299 incidents of self-injury were recorded, displayed by 106 patients. Most of these incidents (87.6%) were classified as non-suicidal. Methods most often used were skin cutting with glass, broken plates, a razor or knife and swallowing dangerous objects or liquids. Ten patients died by suicide, almost all by suffocation with a rope or belt. The majority of the incidents was coded as severe or extreme with the MOAS+. Female patients were overrepresented and they caused on average three times more incidents than male patients. Practical implications More attention is warranted for self-injurious behaviour during forensic treatment considering the distressing consequences for both patients themselves, supervisors and witnesses. Adequate screening for risk of self-injurious behaviour could help to prevent this behaviour. Further research is needed in different forensic settings into predictors of self-injurious behaviour, more specifically, if there are distinct predictors for aggression to others versus to the self. Originality/value Incidents of self-injury occur with some regularity in forensic mental health care and are usually classified as severe. The impact of suicide (attempts) and incidents of self-injurious behaviour on all those involved can be enormous. More research is needed into the impact on all those involved, motivations, precipitants and functions of self-injurious behaviour and effective treatment of it.

Language English
Published in The Journal of Forensic Practice
Key words Incidents self-injury, forensic psychiatry, aggression, suicide, self-harm, gender
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