Head banging as a form of self-harm among inpatients within forensic mental health and intellectual disability services – 2018-01-11

Introduction: ‘Head banging’ is a common form of self-harm, linked to numerous negative outcomes including significant brain damage. However, little research has investigated head banging behaviour and its correlates in clinical populations.

Method: Head banging episodes were identified from the incident records (n = 5417) of two inpatient forensic services (one intellectual disability and one mental health), using relevant search terms. Rates were compared between individual patients, by gender, diagnosis and level of security. Incident accounts were analysed qualitatively using thematic analysis.

Results: Head banging incidents occurred approximately every 3 days in each service, with 229 incidents recorded in 1 year. Individual patient rates varied widely, ranging from 1 to 38 incidents within 1 year. Women, and patients in higher levels of therapeutic security, were significantly more likely to engage in head banging. Qualitative incident reports indicated that head banging was associated with mental distress, anger and psychotic experiences.

Discussion: Head banging occurs frequently in forensic services, and has documented associations with traumatic brain injury in affected individuals, thus negatively impacting progress through the care pathway and treatment outcomes. Further research should investigate short- and long-term management strategies and treatment approaches, in order to minimise harm.

Verity Chester & Regi T. Alexander
The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 11 Jan 2018