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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Study reveals prevalence of self-harm in Scottish teenagers for first time

Embargoed until 06 January 2009

New research shows 14% of teenagers in Scotland have self-harmed – and a further 14% have thought seriously about doing so.

The research, published in the January issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, is the first-ever study to examine the prevalence of adolescent self-harm in Scotland. The results show that the prevalence of self-harm in Scotland is similar to that in England. This is despite the suicide rate in Scotland being twice as high as in England.

A total of 2008 pupils aged 15-16 years old completed an anonymous questionnaire. The pupils all attended secondary schools in Glasgow and Stirling. Self-harm was recorded if they answered ‘yes’ to the question: “Have you ever deliberately taken an overdose (e.g. pills or other medication) or tried to harm yourself in some other way (such as cut yourself)?”

Self-harm was reported by 13.8% of the teenagers. The majority (71%) of those who had self-harmed had done so in the past 12 months, and girls were 3.4 times more likely to have self-harmed than boys. A further 14.4% of the adolescents said they had thought seriously about self-harming, but had not done so. Again, girls were more likely to have thought about taking an overdose or trying to harm themselves than boys.

The most common motive given for self-harm was ‘to get relief from a terrible state of mind’. Almost four in ten (37.6%) of the teenagers reported that they wanted to die.

Although it is not possible to determine what causes young people to self-harm from this study, the researchers found that a number of factors were associated with it. For both girls and boys, smoking, bullying, worries about sexual orientation, self-harm by family members, and anxiety were all associated with self-harm. In addition, drug use, physical abuse, serious boy/girlfriend problems, self-harm by friends and low levels of optimism were associated with self-harm in girls.

Writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the researchers said: “The findings suggest a role for emotional literacy programmes in schools, and highlight the importance of promoting positive mental health among adolescents.”

For further information, please contact:
Sarah Nevins
Press & Social Media Officer
Telephone: 020 3701 2543
Claire McLoughlin
Media & Communications Manager 
Telephone: 020 3701 2544
Out of hours contact number: 07860 755896



O’Connor RC, Rasmussen S, Miles J and Hawton K (2009) Self-harm in adolescents: self-report survey in schools in Scotland, British Journal of Psychiatry, 194: 68-72


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