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One in Twelve Teens Self Harm - Why, and Where to Get Help

With a new Australian study indicating that 1 in 12 adolescents self-harm, it’s important for parents and carers to keep informed about self-harm and what it can mean for their child. The self-harm study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council using a sample of almost 2000 teenage students in Victorian schools.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm or self-injury refers to a person deliberately inflicting physical harm on themself to cope with or communicate their distress. The behaviour is often conducted in secret without family or friends knowing.

Harm can range from minor cutting to life-threatening injuries and can include poisoning, self-cutting, burning, scratching, hitting or biting.

Dr Lena Sanci,  Associate Professor at the Department of General Practice at The University of Melbourne explains that self-harm is a way of dealing with emotional pain by hurting oneself, without necessarily resorting to suicide:

     “Young people usually describe some sort of emotional pain that’s driving that feeling, and the pain of the cut or burn is better than feeling that emotional pain they’re going through. They are doing this in the absence of other ways to cope with that distress.”

Why Do Children Self-Harm?

There is no single cause for self-harming behaviour in children but several risk factors may influence its onset:

  • Previous self-harming behaviour
  • Dealing with a distressful incident or high levels of stress
  • Presence of mental disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression or anxiety
  • Childhood trauma or abuse
  • Substance abuse such as alcohol or drugs
  • Dealing with a chronic or debilitating illness

Dr Sanci says that many sufferers feel disconnected, numb and they can’t put their emotions into words. “Feeling those things is very shocking when you’re going through distress; where feeling pain brings you back into the real world, just so you’re experiencing something other than this terrible numbness.”

How Many Children Self-Harm?

With self-harm behaviour most common in young people and little known about how it evolves, the NHMRC study set out to track the course of self-harm from adolescence to adulthood. Finding that 8% of adolescents had engaged in self-harm, the study also found that young women were the most likely to continue self-harm behaviour into adulthood, particularly where the behaviour was associated with ongoing depression or anxiety issues.

Australian figures are comparable to international rates of self-harm; a Cornell University review notes that self-harm rates may be as high as 10% of British youth aged between 11 and 25, and that at least 13% of American and Canadian high school populations report self-harming behaviour.

Dr Sanci explains that self-harm behaviour peaks in younger teenagers but often stops without treatment. “As young people mature through that emotional process of self-harm, most of them tend to stop by early adulthood.”

Help and Treatment for Self- Harm

Dr Sanci advises parents and carers to be prepared to deal with their own feelings first. “Self-harm can be quite confronting to deal with and it’s essential not to blame yourself or the person for their behaviour.” And it’s important to build communication channels with a child who is self-harming at the same time as offering subtle encouragement for sufferers to ‘open up’.

Learning more about your child’s emotions will also help you provide the support required. “It’s important to understand the feelings that are driving the behaviour and not to belittle them as those emotions represent critical phases of development for young people,” says Dr Sanci.

“Self-harmers often need assistance in managing their emotions so be prepared to talk about and discuss the issues facing that person. Try not to be judgemental or criticising, be empathetic and willing to support the young person.” And Dr Sanci emphasises that attention seeking behaviour is very rare “as most people are just seeking ways to cope with distress”.

If there is a sufficient level of trust between your family doctor and your child, a General Practitioner (GP) is often the best place to start when seeking help and treatment for self-harm. Your family doctor will be able to assess your child and refer you to a specialist such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor.

Information and Support for Self-Harm

In a medical emergency call 000 in Australia or attend your nearest medical emergency department immediately.

In a medical emergency in New Zealand, call 111.

If you require immediate emotional help in Australia please contact either Lifeline on 13 11 14 or, if you are under 18 years old please call Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800. Both these services can help you or, if necessary, refer you to appropriate mental health support services.

Contact Details for Help in Australia


Contact Details for Help in New Zealand

  • In a medical emergency call 111 in New Zealand
  • Lifeline NZ: 0800 543354 
  • Parenthelp 0800 568856
  • What’sUp 0800 942787  Telephone counselling service for children