Why is self-harm spreading?
We still don’t have all the information about why self-harm happens, and who is doing it.
Self-harm can spread like a virus through friendship networks. And now, new research shows it seems to be spreading throughout NSW.
And the driver? Young women, where rates increased from 145 hospitalisations for self-harm for every 100,000 women aged between 15 and 24 in 1991, to 352 in 2010.
I remember when I was in high school, and a girl began self-harming. Soon, around three or four other friends of hers had started doing it as well.
Self-harm is insidious. It is different to a suicide attempt in that it is not a way of ending life, but continuing to deal with life by channelling the pain the person is experiencing into physical pain.
It’s not that there are young women out there who are just sitting around feeling fine, until their friend self-harms and they think ‘hey, that sounds cool’.
And it is not, as this helpful mythbuster (pdf) from Headspace points out, just people trying to fit into emo (or, in my day, goth), subcultures.
Philip Hazell, an expert in child psychiatry who I interviewed for my article, told me it is most likely that people are experiencing pain, and somehow self-harm becomes a way of expressing it.
It could be that the ‘contagion’ effect is about people picking up the idea that this particular behaviour is how they are going to express their pain.
Hazell says we also often see clustering behaviour among young women with other conditions like bulimia or anorexia.
“What my work has shown is it’s actually people with similar characteristics who hang out together and it is a reflection of that, rather than being contagious itself,” he says.
Hazel also cautions we still don’t have all the information about why self-harm happens, and who is doing it.
The NSW statistics seem to show that self-harm actually peaked in around 2004 and have decreased by about 26 per cent since then.
“We couldn’t really explain the rise so it’s hard to explain the decline,” he says.
And while these figures highlight the problem of young women and self-harm, Hazell suspects there might be some uncomfortable secrets hidden in the data.
“In the community young men self-harm at much the same rate,” he says. “They tend to hit themselves or hit things rather than cut or overdose. I suspect when men present [to hospital] with a fractured hand it’s not recorded.”
There are plenty of resources out there for people who are worried about self-harm. Here’s more from Headspace, Reach Out, and of course you can always call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 if you need to talk.
* I don’t, in my job, get that many opportunities to congratulate NSW Health for a job well done. But Health Statistics is a great website. If you are a total data-nerd like me you will just love this site, it creates a fascinating picture of the health of NSW. Check out this article (and graphic) I wrote mining data from the site when it went online at the end of last year.