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The risk of self-harm is lower if someone listens

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New research has generated more knowledge about the scope and cause of self-harming behaviour among young people in Denmark. Moreover, results show that a perception of social support can make a difference.

They hit, burn, scratch or cut themselves until it hurts. They do not want to take their own lives, but 76% of young people who injure themselves to inflict pain do so to overcome difficult and overwhelming emotions. These are young people who injure themselves repeatedly, and they give several reasons for doing so. For example, more than 50% state that they do it because they are desperate, and just as many say that they do it to punish themselves.

There are no previous studies of what social support means to the development of self-harming behaviour, however new research results have come closer to finding the answer. The results indicate that support from the surroundings can make a difference as to whether young people with traumatised childhoods develop self-harming behaviour. Mogens Nygaard Christoffersen, Senior Researcher at SFI - The Danish National Centre for Social Research, is behind these results, which have been published in the recognised international scientific journal Child Abuse & Neglect.

Research shows that the risk of self-harm is six times higher among young people who have been abused, bullied or exposed to other seriously traumatising events compared to young people with no traumatising childhood experiences. An event can also be traumatising if family or friends have been exposed to a harrowing or violent experience, for instance road accidents, fire or rape.

Researchers have worked with a group of people who have experienced not one harrowing event, but seven, based on the assumption that the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and thereby self-harm is higher among people who have experienced a series of childhood traumas. Not surprisingly, this group contains an over-representation of children placed in care. Results show a clear socioeconomic imbalance in the incidence of self-harm.

Mogens Nygaard Christoffersen stresses that the results show a close correlation between young people's childhood and how they feel at the age of 25. "Perhaps the acknowledgement of this correlation can help us become more aware of preventing children from being exposed to traumatising events like bullying and humiliating behaviour. Relevant preventive measures at home and at institutions could help. Some of these young people are being injured for life, and we are wasting resources by not stopping the abuse early and helping these young people," said Mogens Nygaard Christoffersen.

A total of 2980 people took part in the study; all of whom were born in 1984. The study is a representative study, although young people from the most disadvantaged social groups were under-represented. When the participants were 25 years old, they were interviewed about their childhood and any psychological or physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, bullying at school or other serious life events.

Moreover, the participants were interviewed about their social relationships in order to examine the correlation between risk of self-harm and relational support from their surroundings. Of the 2980 participants, 2.7% had injured themselves repeatedly in one way or another, and most of them had experienced several traumatising events in their childhood.

Social relationships can make a difference

Researchers have studied the importance of social support in relation to the risk of developing self-harming behaviour. The study shows that social relationships are a key factor in whether a person develops self-harming behaviour. In this connection, social support means to have someone in your life who wants to listen to you, someone to ask for advice and be on intimate terms with, someone you can tell about your problems, someone who is there when you need them and who supports you emotionally and practically. In brief, someone who wants the best for the child or the young person, as Mogens Nygaard Christoffersen puts it.

"When we analyse the figures, the results show that those who have been exposed to terrible things have a lower risk of harming themselves than could be expected, if they receive the necessary social support. Unfortunately, there is a social imbalance with regard to those who have been exposed to traumatising events in their childhood and whether they receive social support. The number of young people who do not receive social support is highest among those who need it the most. This means that there is a tenable difference if those who need social support the most actually receive social support," explained the SFI researcher.

This group of young people have psychological problems and typically also low self-esteem. Researchers hope that the results can be used to make everyone involved with self-harming young people more aware of reacting appropriately and understanding what this problem is all about.

"Particularly social workers, people working in emergency wards or others in contact with this group must be aware that we are dealing with young people with very low self-esteem and that they need social support. Experience shows that staff at emergency wards, for example, can become annoyed with people who have injured themselves and take up space which could be used by other patients. These are young people who have been traumatised, and who desperately need psychiatric treatment and care. Informing the staff properly about this phenomenon is important, so they are fully aware of what it is all about. This also applies to social workers, school teachers or early childhood educators who work with these young people. They must be aware that these people need considerable care. The young people need help to find other ways to deal with their issues," said Mogens Nygaard Christoffersen. 

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