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Self-harm as a teen linked to problems in adult life

November 3, 2014 General Wellness By Pedro Edney, MSW

In my professional experiences with the adolescent population as a therapist, clinical social worker, and an intern probation officer, I have found a correlation between self-harm and substance abuse in teens. A recent study validated my suspicions, and discovered that those who self-harm as teenagers are at a higher risk of developing mental health and substance abuse problems during their adult life.

Researchers from the University of Bristol, working together with colleagues from the University of Oxford and University College London, recently collected data from 4,799 adolescents as part of a "Children of the 90's" study, one of the world's largest, to examine the outcomes of self-harm for the first time. Their research reveals that 19 percent--nearly one-fifth--of 16-year-olds who took part in the study had a history of self-harm. Most had not sought help from a professional. Examining their progress over the following five years showed that even those who self-harmed without suicidal intent had an increased risk of developing mental health problems like depression and anxiety compared with those who had not self-harmed. They were also more likely to self-harm in the future and to have substance abuse problems. Those who self-harmed with suicidal intentions were more at risk socially and less likely to be in further education, training, or employment three years later.

Although the risks were generally stronger in these participants who had self-harmed with suicidal intent, the study showed for the first time that adolescents who self-harm with or without suicidal intent are more vulnerable to a range of adverse conditions in adulthood. While the study could not reveal that self-harm directly causes these problems, it's a sign that all is not well and professionals need to be aware of these behaviors, and address them early.

In addition, the study touched on the importance of understanding among health and teaching professionals about self-harm, indicating a greater need for education in treating teens who self-harm and not dismissing these warning signs as trivial.

If you or a family member or friend is participating in self-harm practices, it's important to seek help or encourage another to seek help.