• attitudes;
  • ethnography;
  • qualitative research;
  • self harm;
  • suicide

In the UK, someone dies by suicide every 2 hours. An increasing number are also harming themselves. Many of these people are admitted to Medical Admissions Units of General Hospitals. Department of Health guidelines now recommend that anyone who harms him or herself should have a psychosocial and risk assessment. This means that they have to stay in hospital until they are assessed and this renders them ‘different’ from other patients. This study uses an ethnographic approach to search for the meaning to nurses of having this group of patients on the ward, using participant observation and semistructured interviews with four nurses. Three themes were isolated through analysis of the data: the busy quality of such wards (busyness) how this group of clients impede the busy quality and the strategies which nurses use to cope with the difficulties. Analysis of the data revealed that the research participants found difficulty in understanding why people harm themselves and that they felt that they did not have the requisite skills to deal with this group of people. This appears to leave them with a sense of frustration and helplessness which perhaps mirrors that of this client group.