In 2016, it was reported that the number young people who are self-harming has increased dramatically in the last decade – with particular steep trends among girls. Interestingly, researchers seem to have unpacked links to self-harming among young people.
A study by researchers at the the University of Hertfordshire examined if the multiple environments of adolescents including family, peers, school and neighbourhood might function as protective health assets against self-harming behaviour. The results indicated that while peer support did not appear to operate as a protective health asset in the context of self-harm, key dimensions of adolescent-parent interaction and adolescent experience of the school culture and their neighbourhood were associated with reduced likelihood of self-harming behaviours during adolescence.
Specifically, young people who have a low sense of belonging at their schools are nearly seven times more likely to self-harm than those who feel attached to it.
The research was based on data from a collaborative World Health Organization (WHO) study where more than 5,000 students aged 11–15 years completed the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) survey in England. The HBSC study is an international WHO collaborative study, which investigates the determinants of young people’s health and well-being, and health behaviours.
The study collects data from school students aged 11, 13 and 15 years, from 42 countries, through anonymous self-completed questionnaires which young people complete during class time.
In this pioneering study, researchers from the University of Hertfordshire carried out further modelling of the data to explore these latest insights into what extent family life, the school environment and neighbourhood factors act as ‘protective health assets’ for young people in relation to self-harming behaviour. Self-harm was measured by the question: ‘Have you ever deliberately hurt yourself in some way, such as cut or hit yourself on purpose or taken an overdose?’
Research by the University’s Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) England team, published in the International Journal of Public Health, AND has revealed the extent to which young people’s experiences of school, their local community and relationships with their parents can help decrease self-harming behaviour.
Adolescence is a stage of life that is distinct from childhood and adulthood. Significant physical, cognitive, identity, moral and emotional development occurs against a backdrop of changing social and family relationships. Hence, strong parental relationships play an important protective role in young people’s mental health.
The odds of self-harm among those that struggle to communicate with their mothers are two-and-a-half times higher compared with those communicate easily – and with their fathers the odds are twice as high. However, friendships with other young people were not found to have a significant bearing on the likelihood of self-harm, the research found.
The research has built on the key findings from the most recent HBSC England survey: more than one in five 15-year-olds in England said they had self-harmed; nearly three times as many girls as boys (32% of girls compared to 11% of boys revealed that they had self-harmed. The results underscore the need for new school and community initiatives to prevent young people from self-harming, researchers said.
Dr Ellen Klemera, a Senior Research Fellow in Adolescent, Child and Family Health at University of Hertfordshire, said: ‘While our study has uncovered truly worrying levels of self-harm among young people across England, these latest insights present an opportunity to focus attention on the places where the biggest difference can be made.
‘The data on sense of belonging to schools is particularly striking and strengthens the argument that greater support should be offered to schools to implement prevention and early intervention measures that can establish and protect good mental health, and embed a positive ethos and culture of community within our schools.’
The potential to expand personal, social, health and economics education (PSHE) in schools to deliver these mental health interventions should be explored, researchers said. The HBSC England study showed PSHE education has a positive impact on the health and well-being of young people; nearly three quarters of boys and girls said PSHE classes help them to look after their own health. Dr Klemera explained that interventions should not be only limited to schools. It is important that we look at how community initiatives can deliver a more positive impact on young people’s well-being.
Parents who have an ‘easy and open communication style’ can help young people feel protected and reduce the likelihood of self-harm far more effectively than young people interacting with their peers, researchers added.
‘This challenges the simplistic view of young people’s social relationships and the notion that peers naturally displace parents in a young person’s life as the main social support network. Adult connections are an extremely important and influential part of a young person’s life’, Dr Klemera said. Also, an earlier study emphasised the importance of having strong relationships with parents to protect young people from cyberbullying, which is a contributing factor to self-harming.
One limitation of the study, however, is the self-report nature of the data relies on young people’s perception of self-harm and therefore has a disadvantage compared to research conducted in clinical samples. Future research exploring protective assets would also benefit from identifying not only external health assets, but focusing on internal assets as well.
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