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Addressing adolescent self-harm


A new method for evaluating social work practices and social problems, developed through research conducted at the University of East London (UEL), has helped to improve the delivery of social services concerned with adolescent self-harm/ suicide prevention and child abuse.

The innovative approach has been used by various government organisations, health commissioners and charitable organisations, and has generated considerable impact in the fields of suicide prevention/ adolescent self- harm and child abuse linked to Witchcraft and Spirit Possession in London’s African Communities.

The approach was developed as part of research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and led by Professor Stephen Briggs, Director of the Centre for Social Work Research at UEL in collaboration with co-investigator Professor Lynn Froggett from the University of Central Lancashire.

Drawing on Briggs’ expertise in infant observation and applying a distinctive approach to ‘practice-near research’, the researchers developed a new approach to evaluating social care services that combined an in-depth biographical narrative interviewing method (BNIM), along with an in infant observation method taught and practiced at the Tavistock Clinic, a specialist Mental Health clinic based in North London.

The Tavistock Clinic is renowned for its application of psychoanalytical approaches to multidisciplinary professional practice and has a longstanding collaborative relationship with UEL. Briggs developed expertise in working with young people with mental health difficulties over 20 years in the Clinic’s Adolescent Department, leading to publications which are known world-wide  including the book “Working with adolescents and young adults: a contemporary psychoanalytical approach” which is highly regarded amongst practitioners across the UK, Europe, Australia and South America.

Suicide prevention and adolescent self- harm

A ‘practice-near’ evaluation of Maytree, a respite centre for suicidal people, helped the organisation to attract significant additional funding, secure a partnership with the British Transport Police, and gain support from the NHS.

On the basis of his expertise in this field, Briggs was an invited member of the National Clinical Institute for Excellence (NICE) Clinical Guideline Development Group for ‘Self-harm, longer term management (2009-11)’. He also contributed to a change in the Guideline to include greater emphasis on relationship-led approaches to working with self-harm, and the guidance is now being implemented across the NHS.

Briggs’ research in this area has been used to train over 600 health and social care workers in the UK, including social workers, therapists and counsellors, as well as internationally through delivery of training to psychotherapists, and health and social care workers in Australia.   A 10-week CPD programme, ‘Relating to self-harm’, devised by Briggs using his UEL research, has been delivered annually since 2008 through the Tavistock Centre and a video commissioned for the BMJ Learning was included in its online course for GPs working with self-harming patients.

Safeguarding Children’s Rights

Briggs was commissioned by The Trust for London to carry out an evaluation of a community-based initiative to effect changes in attitudes among London’s African communities and reduce the abusive use of religious practices involving children being accused of witchcraft and spirit possession. The evaluation demonstrated the relationship between these religious practices and potential child abuse and showed how social factors, including poverty and marginalisation in these communities increase the risk of abuse.

Briggs’ work facilitated the development of small African community organisations including the Victoria Climbie Foundation, Africans Unite against Child Abuse and Congolese Family Centre. Findings of the evaluation were shared widely with relevant professionals and government bodies through contributions to policy discussion and debate, helping to reduce the ‘wall of silence’ around the issue.

A 2012 National Action Plan produced by the Department for Education Working Group to tackle child abuse linked to faith or belief cited the Trust for London evaluation report as providing “critical learning which should be taken into account in future projects or activity by statutory and non-statutory partners”. 

In November 2013, the evaluation report was referred to in a debate in the House of Lords, and the findings of the research were adopted, that the best protection for children in these circumstances is through application of the child protection and international children’s rights frameworks rather than through specific legislation.


Briggs, S. and Hingley-Jones, H. (2013) Reconsidering adolescent subjectivity; a ‘practice-near’ approach to the study of adolescents, including those with severe learning difficulties, British Journal of Social Work, 43: 64-80. DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcr167.

Briggs, S., Webb, L., Buhagiar, J., Braun, G. (2007) Maytree: A respite centre for the suicidal: An evaluation. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention. 2007 Vol 28(3) 140-147, DOI: 10.1027/0227-5910.28.3.140