What is it really like…to have a child who self harms with paracetamol

Handing holding paracetamol tablets

Unless you have been living under a rock of late, you will probably be aware that in the media, there has been a lot of talk about soaring rates of self-harming amongst children these days. When I was growing up, self harm was nearly always about cutting yourself, however, now a new and scary wave of self harm with paracetamol is gripping troubled children who are suffering from anxiety or depression. In this issue of “What is it really like“, one mum Vikki Harris talks candidly about her daughter’s relationship with self harming with paracetamol, and what we – together -can do about this worrying trend. 

When did your child first self harm with paracetamol and what were the circumstances?

My daughter took her first overdose at the age of 12. She’d been subjected to a year of systematic bullying mainly orchestrated by older boys, she tried to cope by herself until her resilience just couldn’t carry her through another day. She didn’t reveal the extent of her unhappiness or the daily bullying to anyone, not her family nor her school teachers. Her friends, for fear of being targeted too, dropped away and worse some joined in with the bullying. Sadly, she soon became a target to the masses. One morning, walking to school, unable to face another day she overdosed with paracetamol.

Is there a pattern to her self harming with paracetamol?

When her moods drop, which they can with alarming severity, paranoia, auditory hallucinations and self doubt take a vice like grip. Sometimes these episodes can last days, eventually exhausted and beaten she feels she can no longer cope and seeks release from her emotions by self harming with paracetamol.

What do you feel when your daughter self harms herself in this way?

If I’m honest, my first reaction is anger and then paralysing fear, I used to fear that with each subsequent hospital visit she would be sectioned and I was angry with her for putting herself in this predicament again. She has been sectioned before and worryingly after several serious neglect concerns we managed to win a very frightening tribunal to bring her home.  I was sure my child would again, be taken from me.

As we’ve progressed on our journey, I’m not as afraid as its become apparent that her overdoses are not to end her life but to self harm by poisoning and although she has no insight I can prove this theory to the professionals.

How do you cope with your daughter’s self harm?

I am very lucky to come from a large, loving and supportive family and we’ve never lost our ability to laugh through our tears. I work in education and although my hours have been reduced to care for my daughter, work is my normality.

Paracetamol is one of the most common forms of attempted overdose – what needs to be done, in your view, to help reduce this?

Paracetamol is such a financially affordable drug, it’s pocket money  accessible and with no government guidelines to restrict the sale to children it can be bought without challenge. Waitrose’s policy is to sell to children age 12 and over, and although some stores have an over 16 policy with self service tills there is no way to enforce such a policy that a store may have in place.

The Health department have advised that if it can be proven that selling paracetamol to minors causes a significant risk to public health then the MHRA will reconsider current legislation with regard to restricting sales to under 18’s.  Recently published figures show, that in the space of five years, the number of patients under the age of 18 being diagnosed with a psychiatric condition in A&E departments has more than doubled and of children aged less than 15 years presenting to hospital after deliberate overdose, more than 50% had taken paracetamol.  This is a public risk.

What does every parent need to know about self harming with paracetamol?

Paracetamol is a potentially toxic medication and many powerful prescription drugs taken in doses higher than their therapeutic doses are less harmful than paracetamol. A potent drug which in small doses can cause irreversible organ damage and death. Sadly what many children or in fact adults don’t realise, is that after overdosing with paracetamol there are rarely any side effects and would-be suicides and self-harmers may take a handful of pills expecting to drift into a pleasant sleep, only to find that nothing happens. By the next day they may well have changed their minds about killing themselves, but it’s too late: the drug, by then, is already doing its best to destroy their liver.

By the time they start feeling unwell they may be approaching the end of the (roughly) three-day window in which the antidote, acetylcysteine, can save them. Paracetamol is a hepatotoxin. As it is processed by the body, one of its metabolites starts to destroy the cells of the liver. After three days it’s too late, no amount of medical intervention can help and a slow painful death ensues.

If there was only one thing you would say to all parents about self harming in this way it would be….

Never underestimate how much strength it takes to turn mental pain into physical pain and never ever underestimate the toxicity of paracetamol.

Anything else you would like to add?

Children suffering with mental health face a daily battle, their strength and courage is breathtaking but as parents we have a duty of care to protect and fight alongside them, prevention is key with self harming in this manner so please, together, let’s make our voices be heard by signing the petition here.



  1. Like you say self harm I always think of cutting yourself . Scary to think that children at such a young age are doing this now and like said that paracetamol is so easily purchased even though this can happen it’s so scary ! .

  2. I didn’t know about this – it must be so difficult for you but thanks for sharing. As I am both a parent and a teacher, and a teacher of teenaged girls, this is invaluable information and something I didn’t know I should be aware of.

  3. I remember taking paracetamol when I was younger if I was having a particularly bad day, I kinda grew out of it as I knew it wasnt effective in helping me. It’s not something people knew about other than my friends who noticed I would become drowsy and daydreamy at times.
    I cannot imagine what it must be like for a parent to have to watch their child go through this.
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