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Reinventing intention: ‘self-harm’ and the ‘cry for help’ in postwar Britain

Millard, Chris

doi: 10.1097/YCO.0b013e32835904f3
HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY: Edited by KWM (Bill) Fulford, John Z. Sadler and Paul Hoff

Purpose of review: To sketch out how contemporary Anglophone literature on self-damaging behaviour negotiates serious conceptual difficulties around intention, and to demonstrate (in the British context) how the large-scale emergence of this type of behaviour is made possible by new forms of psychological provision at district general hospitals.

Recent findings: In the past decade, there has been increasing public awareness of ‘self-harm’. Despite the view that ‘self-harm’ has always existed, the British roots of the current ‘epidemic’ can be traced to changes in the organization of mental healthcare in the postwar period. These changes make possible new understandings of the story behind physical injuries, and allow these readings to be aggregated and projected onto a national, epidemic scale.

Summary: The increasing provision of psychiatric expertise in general hospitals makes possible new interpretations of self-injury – as psychosocial communication, or affect self-regulation – and creates the phenomenon of ‘self-harm’ as we understand it today.

Centre for the History of Emotions, School of History, Queen Mary, University of London, Canterbury, UK

Correspondence to Chris Millard, 5 Harkness Drive, Canterbury, CT2 7RW, UK. E-mail:

© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.