TROUBLED children in Bolton as young as seven could be secretly harming themselves because of traumas at home or at school.

Experts say primary school pupils are among those who seek help for the problem.

And they are calling for the issue to be more widely aired so those who self-harm can be given help.

Bolton's mental health befriending service, Mhist, which runs a support group for men and women who self-harm, says the problem can be tackled if teachers and parents are made aware of the signs.

Diana Leigh, a counsellor who is also a governor of a Bolton primary school, said: "A quarter of our members started hurting themselves at around the age of seven.

"We know there is a problem that can start even in primary school, and we want to improve knowledge and training so that it can be addressed then."

This week, there were calls for the Government to launch a scheme to tackle the problem among children and teenagers after an inquiry said misunderstandings about the condition prevented them getting the support they needed.

There was also a mixed reaction to revelations that patients who self-harm at a Stafford hospital are being allowed to do so under supervision.

Patients at St George's Hospital are allowed to carry on cutting themselves, but are also offered substitutes such as holding ice cubes or wearing tight elastic bands.

Around 100,000 visits to accident and emergency departments are linked to self-harm, but experts say more people may be harming themselves in secret.

Members of the Mhist support group in Bolton feel that help by a counsellor would be preferable to hospital supervision.

Diana Leigh said: "It is quite possible that then they would not need to self-harm at all."

"Most people do not understand that, far from being a cry for attention, cutting or hurting yourself in some other way is a method of coping with problems.

"But, with help and understanding, people can learn to deal with their feelings and go on to lead happy, normal lives. Sadly, self-harm can start at a very early age, and often shows itself initially as head-banging.

"The situation can only be improved when teachers, including those at primary schools, are able to know more about self-harming and start to recognise the signs.

"Mhist could offer training to help do this, and it is probably something we should be doing."

Allan Bradbury, part of the town's mental health independent support team, who helped carry out a local survey into the problem last year, said that 78 per cent of those questioned felt a trained counsellor in hospital accident and emergency departments could help them.

Counsellors who work with adults who self-harm are often told about incidents of childhood abuse and lack of understanding.

One member of the Mhist support group told how she had helped a local woman who started cutting herself as a child after she had been sexually abused by her father with the tacit consent of her mother.

"The mother used to lock the child in a room with the father telling her it was daddy's day'," the Mhist member said. "This went on for years until the victim was able to get away from home at 16.

"She hurt herself because this was how she coped, but it was not until she was in her 30s that she was able to get help and do something about changing this pattern of behaviour."

Self-harm can take several forms, including abusing drugs or solvents, starving or bingeing, or abusing alcohol.

The subject came to prominence last summer when Olympic double gold medallist athlete Dame Kelly Holmes revealed that despair had forced her to slash herself only months before her famous sporting triumphs.

And playwright Meera Syal tackled the subject in the TV drama "Life Isn't All Ha-Ha, Hee-Hee".

Although there are health services of various kinds in place locally, no-one was currently available to comment from the relevant authorities.

l To find out more about the Bolton self-harm support group, contact Mhist, Deajon House, 30 Chorley New Road, Bolton, BL1 4AP, phone 01204-527200 or email I don't think any of us know why

A poignant email sent to Allan Bradbury from a 16-year-old girl at a Bolton secondary school explained how self-harming was common in her "clique" at school. "A lot of us do it and we feel comfortable talking to each other about our choice of tools and how long we've been doing it," she said in the email. "Rarely do we share why we do it because I don't think any of us know why at least I don't. "Nobody can say that one specific thing is the cause of our self-harming because it's not. It's everything. "The people in my school are one out of three people. "Self-harmers, druggies or workaholics, it doesn't just start when you're an adult. "It starts way before that, yet self-help classes aren't mandatory in schools."