Original Research

Chronic substance use and self-harm in a primary health care setting

Elsie Breet, Jason Bantjes, Ian Lewis
African Journal of Primary Health Care & Family Medicine | Vol 10, No 1 | a1544 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/phcfm.v10i1.1544 | © 2018 Elsie Breet, Jason Bantjes, Ian Lewis | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 18 June 2017 | Published: 19 June 2018

About the author(s)

Elsie Breet, Department of Psychology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Jason Bantjes, Department of Psychology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa
Ian Lewis, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cape Town, South Africa


Background: Chronic substance use (CSU) is associated with health problems, including selfharm, placing a significant burden on health care resources and emergency departments (EDs). This is problematic in low- and middle-income countries like South Africa (SA), where primary care facilitates and emergency departments (EDs) are often poorly resourced.

Aim: To investigate the epidemiology of CSU and self-harm and to consider the implications for primary health care service delivery and suicide prevention in SA.

Methods: Data were collected from 238 consecutive self-harm patients treated at the emergency department (ED) of an urban hospital in SA. The data were analysed using bivariate and multivariate analyses.

Results: Approximately 37% of self-harm patients reported CSU. The patients in the CSU subgroup, compared to other self-harm patients, were more likely to be men (odds ratio[OR] = 8.33, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 3.19–20.9, p < 0.001), to have self-harmed by inflicting damage to their body tissue OR = 4.45, 95% CI = 1.77–11.2, p < 0.01) and to have a history of self-harm (OR = 3.71, 95% CI = 1.44–9.54, p = 0.007). A significantly smaller proportion of CSU patients, compared to other self-harm patients, were referred for psychiatric assessment (OR = 8.05, 95% CI = 4.16–15.7, p < 0.001).

Conclusion: The findings of this study confirm that CSU is associated with greater service utilisation and repetition of self-harm among patients in primary health care settings. Treating self-harm as the presenting problem within primary care settings does not necessarily ensure that patients receive the care that they need. It might be helpful to include psychiatric assessments and screening for CSU as an integral component of care for self-harm patients
who present in primary health care settings.


substance abuse; suicidal behaviour; self-harm; primary care service utilisation


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Crossref Citations

1. Mental health care providers' suggestions for suicide prevention among people with substance use disorders in South Africa: a qualitative study
Daniel Goldstone, Jason Bantjes, Lisa Dannatt
Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy  vol: 13  issue: 1  year: 2018  
doi: 10.1186/s13011-018-0185-y