Reports of self-harm jumped nearly 70 percent among younger teen girls in the UK between 2011 and 2014, suggesting an urgent need for interventions targeted to this group, researchers say.
Self-harm, such as self-poisoning or self-injury, is the strongest risk factor for subsequent suicide, and suicide is the second most common cause of death before age 25 worldwide, the study team notes in the journal The BMJ.
"We found an increase in self-harm among girls aged 13-16 years of age not seen in any other age groups amongst girls or any of the age range we investigated among boys," lead author Catharine Morgan told Reuters Health in an email.
"We are unable to say for certain why this rise was observed. It may be a combination of an increase in girls actually reporting the self-harm or it may be a reflection of an increase in psychological distress among girls of this age group," said Morgan, a researcher at the University of Manchester.
Regardless of the reasons for this rise, we hope the study improves the awareness of the potentially growing problem of psychological distress in all young people, she added.
"We hope parents, grandparents, teachers and healthcare providers through the study may be more mindful of self-harm and the mental wellbeing among young people," Morgan said.
There is little current data on how common self-harm is, the study team writes. One 2012 study in Australia found that 8 percent of adolescents under age 20 reported having harmed themselves at some time, they note.
To assess the more recent prevalence of self-harm and whether kids are receiving adequate treatment for psychological distress, Morgan and her colleagues analyzed UK electronic health records covering 647 general medical practices. Children and teens ages 10 to 19 who had harmed themselves between 2001 and 2014 were included in the study.
Almost 17,000 kids and teens had harmed themselves at least once, and about 73 percent were girls. Just over 84 percent of the incidents were drug overdoses and about 12 percent were self-cutting episodes. Between 2 percent and 3 percent poisoned themselves, and the remaining 1 percent of incidents involved hanging, suffocation, jumping and scalding.
Roughly one in five of these kids harmed themselves again sometime during the year after their first episode, researchers found.
During the study period, annual reports of self-harm rose among both boys and girls, but the increase was greatest, at 68 percent, among young girls. In 2011, about 46 of every 10,000 girls ages 13-16 reported self-harm, but by 2014, that figure was 77 per 10,000 girls.
Overall, annual rates of self-harm were 37.4 per 10,000 girls and 12.3 per 10,000 boys.
The research team also found high rates of depression and anxiety disorders among the kids who self-harmed. About one-third of the girls and one-quarter of the boys were diagnosed with depression, for example.
Less than half of the kids reporting self-harm received referrals to mental health services, however. And teens who lived in the most economically deprived neighborhoods were 23 percent less likely than others to be referred for mental health care, the authors note.
When researchers compared a subset of 8,000 kids who had harmed themselves with more than 170,000 similar children who hadn't harmed themselves, they found that kids who had self-harmed were nine times more likely to later die from unnatural causes including suicide and drug or alcohol poisoning.
"Self-harm behavior is complex and resources for children, parents, and teachers are constantly being updated," Morgan said, adding that parents should know there is help out there and expert advice as to how best to approach the problem.
"The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has an excellent website that talks about reasons why young people may self-harm, how to spot the warning signs including the physical and emotional signs of self-harm," she noted. (http://bit.ly/211tWtK)
"Although the results of this study are alarming, we do know that a large proportion of children who self-harm do not continue to do so into adulthood," Morgan said, "however, all self-harm should be taken seriously."