Patients who self-harm are being allowed to do so in hospital as part of a study into their treatment.

The scheme, being piloted at St George's psychiatric hospital in Stafford, allows patients to cut themselves in a "safe environment".

Chris Holley, a consultant nurse who is leading the six-month project, said it involved a small group of patients who would continue to self-harm even if they were told not to.

She said: "There are a number of therapies such as holding ice cubes, flicking elastic bands on wrists, therapeutic writing and therapy.

"What this is about is if all that fails and they are going to cut anyway, then let's make it safe."

Ms Holley said patients often felt guilty if they continued to self-harm when told not to. This scheme enabled self-harming to be brought "out in the open", reducing the stigma associated with the illness, she said.

"This group of people have been using cutting very secretly in places that can't be seen such as the belly, thighs and knees.

"It's a very private coping strategy that they don't usually share with other people."

The Department of Health will look at the findings of the scheme to determine future treatment for the condition.

A spokesman said: "It is an exercise to find out what the true picture is. We are working closely with stakeholders and we will judge appropriateness of taking any initiatives at the end of the scheme."

Traditional treatment techniques have involved confiscating harmful instruments.