Understanding the functions of repeated self-harm: a Q methodology approach

Louise D Bryant, Roseanne O'Shea, Kate Farley, Cathy Brennan, Helen F Crosby, Elspeth Guthrie, Allan House

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


BACKGROUND: Multiple repetition of self-harm is common and is associated with poor quality of life and with an increased risk of suicide. Treatment outside specialist clinics rarely takes account of what is known about the varied and conflicting reasons for multiple repetition. We aimed to identify ways in which individuals who self-harm make sense of their motivations for repetition.

METHODS: In 2018/2019 we recruited 59 participants from NHS services, support organizations in England and via social media into a Q-methodology study. Participants sorted, ranked and commented on 46 separate functions of self-harm according to whether they agreed or disagreed with them as reasons for their own self-harm. The functions were identified from a range of academic sources and first-person accounts.

RESULTS: Principal Component Analysis was used to identify four distinct accounts for repeated self-harm: 1) Managing my mental state, 2) Communicating Distress, 3) Distract from suicidal thoughts or feelings and 4) Producing positive feelings. There were no clear links between account and gender or other respondent characteristic, although those who self-harmed most regularly and frequently ('so many times I've lost count') were mostly in Accounts 1 and 4.

CONCLUSIONS: This is the first study to use Q methodology to explore reasons for repeated self-harm. The accounts identified can help in personalizing therapy by going beyond models that focus on a single function such as affect regulation or experiential avoidance, while reducing the field to a manageable number of points of view that can be explored in therapy.

Original languageEnglish
Article number113527
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Early online date23 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • England
  • Humans
  • Quality of Life
  • Self-Injurious Behavior
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Suicide


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