The Cambridge team identified adolescents who reported self-harm at age 14 in the United Kingdom. The full results are published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
The team identified two distinct subgroups among young people who self-harm, with significant risk factors present as early as age five, nearly a decade before they reported self-harming. While both groups were likely to experience sleep difficulties and low self-esteem reported at age 14, other risk factors differed between the two groups.
The first group showed a long history of poor mental health, as well as bullying before they self-harmed. Their caregivers were more likely to have mental health issues of their own.
For the second group, one of the key signs was a greater willingness to take part in risk-taking behavior, which is linked to impulsivity. Factors related to their relationships with their peers were also important for this subgroup, including feeling less secure with friends and family at age 14 and a greater concern about the feelings of others as a risk factor at age 11.
This research is so important because the findings suggest that it may be possible to predict which individuals are most at risk of self-harm up to a decade ahead of time, providing a window to intervene. The results suggest that boosting younger children’s self-esteem, implementing anti-bullying measures, and providing advice on sleep training, may reduce levels of self-harm many years later.
The research was supported by the Gates Cambridge Trust, Templeton World Charity Foundation, and the UK Medical Research Council.
Uh, S et al. Two pathways to self-harm in adolescence. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; 14 June 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.jaac.2021.03.010