Self-harm (Deliberate Self-Harm, DSE) is defined as intentionally injuring your own body without suicidal intent, most commonly by cutting, hitting or burning.

Although previously considered to be associated with severe mental illnesses, the rate of self-harm behavior is now known to be more common among the general population and seems to be increasing in younger generations. A recent study found that about one third of college students have engaged in some form of self-harm behavior in their lifetime. It has generally been suggested that self-harm is related to childhood abuse but some studies have not found that link.

From our point of view, self-harm is just one of many similar childhood problems such as head-banging, restless legs syndrome and asthma that have increased since the 1970s. In our experience, self-harm can be a side-effect of both medications and food chemicals and can improve dramatically on the elimination diet.

Effects of medications

In 2003, the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) set up an expert panel to review the safety and efficacy of antidepressants such as Prozac (known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs), starting with their use in under-18s. By December, it had banned all the SSRIs except Prozac for this age group, citing poor evidence of efficacy and a raised risk of self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

From the Medical Journals

Klonsky ED, Oltmanns TF, Turkheimer E. Deliberate self-harm in a nonclinical population: prevalence and psychological correlates. Am J Psychiatry 2003;160(8):1501-8. Free full text at for an overview of self-harm

There are no reports in the medical literature of a link between self-harm and food intolerance.

Reader reports

[1296] 282: "the meltdowns and self harming stopped the next day" (December 2014)

My daughter has always been a little bit of a 'wired' child. She had eczema until she was 3 and many strange rashes after eating that came and went. However, all of this was quite manageable and she was otherwise a healthy, happy kid. Then, when she was 4 years old she overnight became utterly unmanageable. Her slight anxiety blew out of control, she was melting down 4-10 times a day over tiny things, she was disagreeable, angry and miserable (this was a child that never did the terrible twos or was a tantrum thrower). Nothing in our home life had changed, nothing seemed different except her. She was repeatedly saying terrible negative things that I never expected to hear from a small child. Worst of all, she started hurting herself during these melt downs. She would tear and her skin all up her arms until it bled, she would bite her arms until she bruised them and rip her hair out. I was completely lost. I went to the GP who referred me to a paediatrician. He took it fairly seriously given it's sudden onset and ordered a ream of tests. Waiting for the results seemed to take forever and in my desperation I was reading everything I could find. Somewhere, somehow I came across information about child behaviour and food intolerances and was directed to the FedUp website. I searched my brain. Was anything different in our diet in the 8 weeks she had been like this? We didn't eat much packaged food anyway - but YES. Since the beginning of that year I had been buying a different 'healthy looking' gluten free commercial sliced bread for my daughters lunch (we never had much bread as I'm coeliac). She had been having this bread almost every day and her consumption of it coincided perfectly with the onset of this behaviour. I ran to the kitchen - I just knew it must have this 282 preservative I'd been reading about. It did and I threw it in the bin. The meltdowns and self harming stopped the next day, three days before we re-visited the paediatrician to be told there was nothing wrong with her and that it was a parenting issue.

Since that time we have had only two re-emergences of this awful, awful behaviour, only ever mildly and short lived (it's coming up to two years now since this horror 8 weeks of my life). Further investigation has shown she is sensitive to some degree to natural food chemicals, particularly amines and we limit those. I have never had the guts to retest her with anything with 282 in it and am happy to never have it in my house as long as I live.

When I saw those awful statistics about young kids and self harm I felt sick. This is on the rise just like all allergies and mental health conditions are on the rise. I had to share my story and hope it can help someone else or get action - Kylie by email.

[1251] Maybe alcohol’s not the problem –‘brain snaps’ due to additives (January 2014)

I was sitting at home, reading about 'alcohol-fueled' violence in Sydney, while listening to my seven- and five-year-old having a Category 5 tantrum outside as they recovered from the preservatives and artificial flavourings and colourings they'd been plied with at family holiday functions.

Then I had what may or may not have been a Eureka moment. I'm sure someone has brought this up before, but it could it be that ingredients other than alcohol in beer, wine, spirits and mixed drinks could be at least partly responsible for the so-called 'brain snaps' which have led to recent violent and tragic incidents?.

While I was contemplating this, I was drinking a 100% natural, preservative-free beer. I do this not because I like spending the extra money or think it gives me street cred. I do this because I've had some terrible experiences with some mainstream beer and mixed drink brands. I have had what some might term brain snaps, not leading to any violent behaviour on my part, but certainly reckless in terms of self-harm. I've also had massive headaches and allergic reactions from these drinks and, when I've told other people about this, some have described exactly the same symptoms. – Michael, NSW see full story

[1179] Failsafe high school graduation success: one of the highest OPs in her school (February 2013)

Thank you for all your efforts over the years. I am certainly a champion of the cause after the success we have had with our daughter. Anyone that talks of issues with their children I talk about FAILSAFE, even buy the books for them.

In 2003 the teachers, doctors and paediatrician all wanted to medicate our daughter for ADD. She was behind in school, had trouble keeping friends, would have fits of rage then extreme bouts of depression, wanting to self harm or die. It was tragic and heartbreaking. Looking back we now see how we went from a really good baby to a terrible twos and beyond ... after the introduction of main stream solids. I was quite determined not to take the easy way out and spend $20 a month on subsidised dexamphetamine ... so my research led me to Fed Up. We haven't looked back, yes admittedly we have slipped over the years but behaviours and moods always bring us back. It's been a long and at times arduous journey but well worth the effort.

Our daughter graduated high school last year with one of the highest OPs in her school which guaranteed her entry into a number of top universities. Everyone (including the teachers) comments on how polite and engaging she is as a teenager.

My advice to those starting the failsafe journey ... hang in there ... the rewards are well worth the effort. Thank you Sue and Howard! - D from Brisbane

[418] My son is a state ward (May 2006)

My son 14 is a state ward and has been for 18 months. His behaviour at home was violent, aggressive and surly to such an extent that my safety was threatened. He had damaged property, harmed pets, broken my bones ... He was 12 when he went into care and this behaviour had gone on since the age of 7. He tried to kill himself a number of times, initially playing chicken with cars, starving himself, much self harm behaviour and nearly succeeded last year when he cut an artery in his leg.

I tried to get help for years only to be told that I was a bad mother. I was accused of abusing my son so many times it wasn't funny, even dragged before courts for it. They didn't get it. I was the one with the bruises and broken bones not the kid. He was never diagnosed with any disorder. All behaviour was put down to an incident when he was 6 and a teen tried to molest him. I had seen him lose touch with reality and even respond to voices - at 8 years old. School suspensions started in grade 2. His school had a sign that other children would file out of the classroom on a pre-determined signal ... I could go on and on.

He became a state ward after a particularly bad incident where I ended up with concussion but to get him off me I had to bite him ... therefore proving what a violent mother I am.

I got your book Fed Up from the library and read it over the weekend. What a revelation to me.

He has just been diagnosed as a possible coeliac. He has always had some intolerances and his sister had GI probs and lactose intolerance too. Both have not done well away from what they ate at home, which on reflection was low gluten and low additives.

Well, at the moment the lad is keen to clean up the diet, at least the gluten part, but I think it is too late to mend our relationship.

I should have done more research and figured out the food connection earlier. I did make food connections, from when he was very young. He was lactose intolerant, had trouble with other foods. He was also a bedwetter until nearly 10. He always had gut problems. We noticed if he had certain foods he would be worse, even his family day care parents learnt the hard way about the foods. His doctors knew this, the psychologists knew this but NOBODY made the connection. Even now the only reason he got checked out was I pushed and after a few incidents in the unit I raised Duty of Care.

Anyway at least I have hope now. Hope that he won't end up in the justice or mental health system. Hope that he can get back to a normal school. Hope that maybe one day he can come home to visit. This system he has ended up in is not used to bright kids and he is in a school for not so bright ones. Meanwhile he has learnt heaps of bad behaviour from others ...

I can see that failsafe foods have been your work for years and indeed you work very hard to get the word out. What I can't understand is why more people don't suspect food problems in behaviours with kids. How many more families have to go through what we have been through?

So Sue if any of our story helps other families or professionals please go ahead and use it. You don't have children for other people to raise. I should count myself fortunate I still get a say as I am still a guardian but it is difficult and if the connections had been made when I first suspected them none of this need have happened - reader, Vic.

[390] Mixed depressive disorder with anxiety and obsessive ruminations including self harm due to salicylate sensitivity (March 2006)

My 6 ½ year old son, Tim (not his real name) is currently undergoing investigation of mixed depressive disorder with anxiety and obsessive ruminations. We have used failsafe in the past with one of our other children, but had not ever thought of foods being linked to Tim’s mood problems. When you mention a “gifted and depressed” child at your recent talk my ears immediately pricked up and took note. Tim has been identified as highly gifted and everyone has been saying that is the cause of his problems but I have always felt there was something else underlying that was contributing. We will be contacting our GP today and hopefully starting the elimination diet as soon as possible.

2 weeks later…

Just wanted to let you know, we are all amazed at our son's improvement over the last two weeks. I have been in contact with the dietitian you recommended, she is lovely and very supportive. We will be starting the "proper" 3 week elimination diet on the weekend after the school camp (couldn't manage that one!) But I wanted to tell you also that even my GP has taken to your book for herself and her family. She is raving about it!

2 months later …

Since starting the elimination diet Tim has not self harmed once! He is much calmer and has noticed this in himself. He no longer seems to be as restless and has been falling asleep easily at a reasonable time in the evenings. We started with the salicylate challenge this week and there seemed to be no reaction, until day 5/6 when we started to notice his behaviour was getting worse. We will stop this challenge tonight and wait to try some other groups. His GP and Clinical Psychologist are both thrilled with the change as well! …

One week later ….

After I emailed you we finally had the BIG reaction we were looking for. It happened on Day 7 of the salicylate challenge - we had already stopped the challenge that morning. Tim went to bed as normal then began to write swear words all over his bed, his sheets and his body. ("I was angry with you because I couldn't fall asleep") This is the behaviour and obsessive ruminations this poor boy was experiencing on a daily basis before the elimination diet, which we have not seen until this challenge.

[155] A Brush with Pizza Snack Biscuits (June 2002)

My sons are severely food and chemical intolerant. Their diets are severely restricted, just to enable them to cope with day to day life. Their adherence to the restricted diet literally enables them to survive. We avoid additives in food at all costs, and we avoid chemicals wherever possible as they affect the boys equally to the wrong food choices. They are aged 6 and 3....

Another unfortunate feature that reared its ugly head during this horror period was a return to very negative self image; calling himself stupid and an idiot, saying and believing that no-one liked him and no-one loved him, and believing that his friends didn’t like him anymore either. When he has a reaction like this, he believes he is not a good person. This is a very heavy burden for such a small person, but it has been a part of his reaction pattern since he began to speak. When he was eating a lot more foods when very small - before we had pinpointed the problem (and life was hell for everyone), he would sometimes self harm and sometimes even say ‘I wish I was dead’. It is a very scary and affronting thing to hear your two year old say, "I’m a yucky person! I wish I was dead!"

Oh, and what additives were in the box? A combination of at least four glutamate flavour enhancers, some colours, added flavours, vegetable fat (that is likely to contain one of the harmful antioxidants but which doesn’t have to be listed because it represents less than 10 percent of the final product), cheese powder (also usually has added flavour enhancer in the manufacturing), spices… I think anyone reading this will get the picture! Read more

See also the following factsheets: Depression Head-banging

The information given is not intended as medical advice. Always consult with your doctor for underlying illness. Before beginning dietary investigation, consult a dietician with an interest in food intolerance. You can see our list of experienced and supportive dietitians

© Sue Dengate update December 2014