Purpose: Previous research into health care professionals' perceptions of self-harm has found that, although complex, in some cases their perceptions can be somewhat negative and unsympathetic towards individuals who harm themselves. However, it is presently unclear whether these perceptions reflect more general attitudes to self-harm in broader social groups. The present study aims to represent a preliminary investigation into perceptions of self-harm in the general public. First, since there is no universal agreement on which behaviours constitute self-harm, this study aims to investigate public perceptions of this, including whether participants identified more controversial behaviours such as eating disorders and body modification as methods of self-harm in addition to the more commonly identified behaviours such as cutting and burning. Secondly, it aims to identify whether attitudes towards individuals who self-harm in a small sample of the general public were similar to the sometimes negative and unsympathetic perceptions of health care professionals demonstrated in some previous studies.
Design/methodology/approach: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with seven participants, none of whom had any professional or academic experience or knowledge of self-harm, who were recruited via second acquaintances of the first author. A matrix-based thematic analysis method was used to analyse the data collected.
Findings: The main findings of this study were that eating disorders were generally perceived as forms of self-harm while body modification was not, and that participants generally showed sympathy towards individuals who self-harm, especially when they perceived the behaviour to be associated with mental illness.
Originality/value: Although, given the small size of the sample, this should be considered a preliminary study, the findings suggest that developing a greater understanding of public perceptions of self-harm could have important implications for understanding mental health professionals' perceptions of the phenomenon. The authors suggest that stigma and negative perceptions of people who self-harm may not be inevitable and that further research in this area could be of value in informing public and professional education campaigns in this area.