Girls Are More Likely To Self Harm Than Boys

Teenage girls in Scottish secondary schools are more than three times more likely than boys to deliberately harm themselves, according to a new study.

Research by academics at Stirling University found that one in five females had self-harmed at some time, compared to just 7% of boys. Overall, 14% of the sample of more than 2000 pupils from West and Central Scotland aged 15 and 16 had self-harmed.

The survey, to be unveiled at a conference on suicide and self-harm in Glasgow today, found that victims of self-harm were significantly more depressed, anxious, impulsive and had lower self-esteem than pupils who did not.

They also had a higher rating of so-called “social perfectionism” – the feeling they have to live up to the unrealistic expectations of others.

Of those in the study who admitted to self-harm, most said it was to get relief from a “terrible state of mind”. Some said they wanted to punish themselves while others said they wanted to die.

Key factors associated with self-harm included drug use, a past history of being bullied, relationship problems, physical abuse, worries about sexual orientation and whether family or friends had self-harmed. However, those who had an optimistic view of life tended not to self-harm.

Dr Rory O’Connor, who conducted the study with Dr Susan Rasmussen, said a number of factors made females more likely to self-harm, including greater prevalence of depression and greater exposure to “negative life events” such as sexual abuse.

He also said boys were more likely to deal with distress in other ways such as fighting or using drugs and alcohol.

Dr O’Connor went on to praise the Scottish Government’s National Programme for Improving Mental Health and Wellbeing, but stressed that building optimism in young people was a key strategy for the future.

“Scotland is leading the way in looking at ways of coping with stress and the government’s national campaign to encourage young people to seek help and talk about their problems is proving effective,” he said.

“As the study shows, optimism is a very important part of ensuring positive mental health and if schools can make young people more optimistic by giving them self-esteem as well as problem-solving skills and communication skills then that can only have a positive impact.”

Dougie Paterson, national operations manager for Choose Life, a national strategy to reduce suicide, also believes Scotland is beginning to tackle the issue, with a 13% decline in the suicide rate since 2002. The fall has coincided with a national billboard and newspaper campaign to raise awareness and, more recently, the setting up of Siren – a network of academics, professionals and those who work with young people to develop greater awareness of the causes of suicide and how it can be prevented.

Mr Paterson welcomed the fall as a “positive start”, but said there was still scope for further progress. “It is still early days and there are still areas of attention that we need to learn more about and take action on,” he said. The study will form part of the largest-ever UK conference on suicide prevention held today at Glasgow Science Centre and organised by Siren.