Teen self-harm a marker of longer term mental health risks

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Depressed teen student helplessly stares at his reflection in bathroom mirror.
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Melbourne researchers have released a report explaining that while self-harm predominately occurs during adolescence, it should never be considered ‘just a passing phase’ because it is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems and suicide for at least a decade.

Dr Rohan Borschmann, a researcher and psychologist at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the report’s lead author, said recent Australian findings suggest that approximately one in twelve people will engage in self-harm during their lives.

“Friends and family of young people who self-harm should remember that, for many, this is potentially more than just a passing phase,” Dr Borschmann said. “We know that a history of self-harm during adolescence is a strong predictor of later mental health problems, including suicide.”

The paper ‘Self-harm and Suicide in Young People’ is co-authored with Dr Shilpa Aggarwal (Deakin University) and Prof George Patton (MCRI) and has just been published in the World Federation of Mental Health book ‘Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World’. That is the theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day.

“Typically, the first episode of self-harm occurs between the ages of 12 and 16, and rates peak at around 15-16 years, when as many as one in ten adolescents in this age group will self-harm,” Dr Borschmann said.

“One reason that self-harm commonly begins in the early teen years is that puberty brings a new set of emotional problems for young people. Sometimes it’s conflict within the family, sometimes troubles with peers including bullying and cyberbullying, and sometimes it’s simply all the changes that come with making the move to secondary school.”

“Rates of self-harm typically decrease in the later teenage years and, encouragingly, continue falling until at least the age of 30. This may be, in part, due to young people developing alternative coping strategies during their twenties, and becoming better equipped to problem-solve.”

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Dr Borschmann, who is also an Honorary Research Fellow in the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne, said when supporting someone who has self-harmed, it is essential to be honest and open with them.

“Let the young person know that they are not alone and encourage them to seek professional help if necessary,” he said.

“Self-harm is more widespread in young women than young men, and most young people who self-harm do not usually reach out for help beforehand.”

Dr Borschmann said the risk of self-harm was more common in vulnerable groups of young people.

“By that I mean anyone who has experienced discrimination or marginalisation – migrants, refugees, young Indigenous people and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex persons. Childhood abuse and conflicting family relationships also increase the likelihood of self-harm in young people.”

He explained that many young people who self-harm do so in response to emotional pain or a sense of being overwhelmed by these thoughts and feelings.

If you or someone you know needs urgent support, talk to someone you trust or contact one of the crisis support service listed below:

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Young people

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800

headspace 1800 650 890


Emergency services: 000


Lifeline 13 11 14

beyondblue 1300 224 636

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467

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MensLine Australia 1300 789 978

QLife 1800 184 527 (3pm – 12am)

Emergency services: 000

For education and advice resources

Life in Mind

Head to Health


SANE Australia Forums

E-safety Commission

(Source: Murdoch’s Children Research Institute)

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Date Created: October 24, 2018