"Self-harm in girls and young women rising at 'alarming' rate," reports Sky News.
A study based on 3 surveys of people in England aged 16 to 74 found a worrying rise in people who say they have ever self-harmed.
The overall numbers rose from 2.4% in 2000 to 6.4% in 2014. The increase in reported self-harm was biggest among women and girls aged 16 to 24, with 19.7% of those questioned in 2014 saying they'd self-harmed.
Self-harm was defined in the survey as deliberate self-harm without the intention of causing death. It's often a way of trying to cope with severe emotional distress.
Fewer than half of people reporting self-harm in any of the rounds of surveys said they'd been in contact with medical or psychological services as a result.
Some people in the study said they used self-harm to cope with feelings of anger, tension, anxiety or depression.
But self-harm is not a good coping mechanism for dealing with difficult emotions, or the situations that cause them.
As well as causing physical injury, it can increase the chances of future suicide.
Help for people dealing with self-harm is available, and a GP can be the first stop.
You can also call the mental health charity Samaritans' helpline on 116 123 (open 24 hours a day).
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the National Centre for Social Research, the University of Bristol, University College London, King's College London, the University of Leicester, the University of Sheffield and the University of Manchester, all in the UK.
It was funded by the Department of Health and Social Care and the National Institute for Health Research.
Most of the reporting in the UK media was reasonably accurate. Many speculated about the potential reasons behind the rise in self-harm, with The Daily Telegraph linking it explicitly to social media use.
But the study did not look at the reasons behind this trend, and there was nothing in the study to link self-harm to social media.
What kind of research was this?
This was an analysis of 3 cross-sectional surveys, weighted to give a balanced sample of the UK population.
This type of study is helpful for getting an overview of what's happening at any one time and spotting trends in the data.
But it cannot explain what's behind trends or changes in the data.
What did the research involve?
Researchers used data from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Surveys carried out for the NHS in 2000, 2007 and 2014.
Because the age range and locations sampled varied, they focused on information about people aged 16 to 74 in England, as this was available for all 3 surveys.
Researchers had survey responses from 7,243 people in 2000, 6,444 in 2007 and 6,477 in 2014.
Researchers asked people in face-to-face interviews whether they'd ever deliberately harmed themselves in any way, but not with the intention of killing themselves.
If they said they had, they were asked follow-up questions about their reasons for doing so, what methods they used, and whether they subsequently sought or received professional help.
People also completed a range of questions about their physical and mental health, ethnic background, housing, financial situation and education.
Researchers also took account of the level of deprivation of their local area.
They also looked at how reports of self-harm compared across the 3 surveys between genders and across age ranges.
They then looked at whether there were any factors that increased or decreased the likelihood of people having contact with medical or psychological services after self-harming.
What were the basic results?
Overall, people were almost 3 times as likely to report self-harm in 2014 as in 2000:
- 2.4% reported self-harm in 2000
- 3.8% reported self-harm in 2007
- 6.4% reported self-harm in 2014
Rates rose across both genders and all age groups. Self-harm was more common among younger age groups in each survey.
While female and male participants were equally likely to report self-harm in 2000 and 2007, it became more common among women.
In 2014, 5% of men and 7.9% of women reported self-harm.
The figures for girls and young women aged 16 to 24 showed the biggest rise:
- 6.5% reported self-harm in 2000
- 11.7% reported self-harm in 2007
- 19.7% reported self-harm in 2014
The number of people who said they had no contact with medical services as a result of their self-harm stayed fairly stable, rising from 51% to 59%.
The researchers said women and girls were more likely to have contact with medical services, as were people with poorer mental or physical health and those who had previously attempted suicide.
Younger people were less likely to have contact with medical services than older people.
More people said they used self-harm to cope with painful emotions than said they used it to draw attention to or change a difficult situation.
The number saying they self-harmed to deal with emotions rose, especially among young women.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers said their findings could have "serious long-term public health implications" if more people are using self-harm to cope with emotional stress.
They added: "There is a risk that self-harm will become normalised for young people … Young people need health and educational services to be available, and health and other professionals need to discuss self-harm with young people and encourage them to find safer ways of coping."
The results of this survey suggest an increasing number of people, especially girls and young women, are turning to self-harm to cope with painful feelings.
That's a worry, because they may damage their health and increase their chances of suicide attempts.
Self-harm does not provide a long-term answer to painful emotions or difficult circumstances.
But the study has some limitations. The overall number reporting self-harm, especially in the 2000 survey, is fairly low (65 men and 105 women in 2000), which means the results may not be an accurate picture of the overall population level of self-harm.
Also, although the same questions were asked in each survey, people's understanding of self-harm is likely to have changed since 2000.
People may be more likely to report self-harm, or see certain acts as self-harm, than they were when the survey began.
Also, we do not know whether the people who declined to take part in the survey were more or less likely to have self-harmed than those who did participate.
We also crucially do not know how often people were engaging in self-harm. Because they were asked if they'd ever self-harmed, we do not know whether they were reporting a single event or an ongoing pattern of behaviour.
Previous studies of self-harm have focused on people who were in contact with medical services as a result of self-harm.
As the study discovered, more than half of people who self-harm do not seek help, so this study improves our knowledge of the scale of the problem.
Despite its limitations, the study seems to have found a worrying increase in self-harm, especially among young women.
If you or someone you know is self-harming, get in touch with a GP. They can help you find better, safer ways to cope.
Some injuries may need emergency medical help. You should call for an ambulance if you or someone else:
- have taken an overdose of drugs, alcohol or prescription medication
- are unconscious
- are in a lot of pain
- are having difficulty breathing
- are losing a lot of blood from a cut or wound
- are in shock after a serious cut or burn
There are organisations that offer support and advice for people who self-harm, as well as their friends and families.
- Samaritans – call 116 123 (open 24 hours a day), email email@example.com, or visit your local Samaritans branch
- Mind – call 0300 123 3393 or text 86463 (9am to 6pm on weekdays)
- Harmless – email firstname.lastname@example.org
- National Self Harm Network forums
- YoungMinds Parents Helpline – call 0808 802 5544 (9.30am to 4pm on weekdays)
Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Website
Links to the headlines
Sky News, 5 June 2019
The Guardian, 4 June 2019
BBC News, 5 June 2019
The Daily Telegraph, 4 June 2019
Links to the science
The Lancet: Psychiatry. Published online June 4 2019