Suicide Prevention

Self harm by Australian high school students: latest research on who might do it and how to help

By Sarah Stanford.

Walk into any high school and you can be confident that there are young people who self-harm. Research suggests that around one in ten teens will self-harm at least once. That equates to 2-3 students per classroom. So we know that self-harm is fairly common.

What is self-harm?

The most common form of self-harm in teenagers is cutting, followed by overdose. Other methods include scratching or piercing the skin, banging your head or other body parts, cigarette burns, hair pulling, wound interference, and jumping from heights.

Why is self-harm a concern?

There can be some skepticism around self-harm, and some people dismiss the behaviour as ‘attention seeking’. However, there are some very real reasons to be concerned about youth self-harm:

  • The most obvious concern is that self-harm involves physical pain and damage, which can leave permanent scars or injury. Young people who self-harm often do not receive medical help for serious injuries.
  • While most young people who self-harm do not intend to die, there is still an increased risk of non-fatal and fatal attempts to end their life. It is hard to know which self-harming young people might be at increased risk of suicide, since suicidal thoughts can be ambiguous and transient. In fact, engaging in repeated self-harm can gradually desensitize a person and, over time, make it easier to engage in more serious suicidal behaviour.
  • Young people who self-harm are more likely to experience mental health difficulties. This includes anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. They are also more likely to engage in other self-destructive behaviours, including eating disorders and risk taking behaviour, and to use or abuse drugs and alcohol.
  • Teachers often fear that self-harm may spread among students. These fears are valid: self-harm research identifies the occurrence of social modeling in self-harm initiation and continuation.

But do we know which young people are self-harming?

Naturally, teachers and welfare staff are concerned about self-harm among their students. In most schools, staff strive to keep an eye out for young people who show signs of self-harm, in order to provide further support to students in need. While the intention is good, how easy is it to identify young people who self-harm? It might be harder than we first think.

Despite the prevailing stereotype that young people self-harm to receive attention, in reality most young people keep self-harm hidden. When a young person discloses self-harm, it is not usually to a mental health professional. They are most likely to disclose to a peer, and when disclosing to an adult it is more likely to be a parent than a teacher or counsellor.


Continue reading this article at >> Australian Association for Research in Education.


Sarah Stanford is an Honorary Postdoctoral Associate at Macquarie University. As a self-harm speaker, writer, and researcher she works with schools, churches and community groups to identify and respond to self-harm. Her current projects include working with schools to develop education programs for staff and parents.

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