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Substantial numbers of adolescents self-harm, but the majority of cases do not reach the attention of medical services, making community studies essential. The prevalence of suicidal thoughts and plans at this age, and the inter-relationships between suicidal thoughts, plans and self-harm remain largely unexplored.
Cross-sectional analysis of self-reported questionnaire data collected from members of the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) birth cohort, England. Respondents (n=4810) were aged 16–17years old and have been followed up since birth.
Altogether 905 (18.8%) respondents had ever self-harmed. The prevalence of lifetime self-harm was higher in females (25.6%) than males (9.1%). The most commonly used method was self-cutting: this was used alone or in combination in 73.5% of episodes, compared to 10.0% who took overdoses alone or in combination with other methods. Of those who reported self-harm, 25.3% wanted to die during the most recent episode. Concurrent depression was associated with a greatly increased risk of self-harm (OR 5.43). Only 12.4% of participants sought medical help following their most recent episode of self-harm, although this figure was higher (30.1%) where self-harm was carried out with desire to die. Of the whole sample, 15.8% had ever thought of killing themselves, and 4.3% had ever made plans to kill themselves. Compared to those who had never self-harmed, those who had self-harmed but not wanted to die during the most recent episode were at increased risk of ever having had suicidal thoughts (37.6% compared to 7.8% χ2 =102.3, p<0.001) and ever making suicidal plans (8.7% compared to 0.7%, χ2 =166.9, p<0.001). As the frequency of self-harm increased, so did the risk of suicidal thoughts and plans.
Self-harm and suicidal thoughts are common among 16/17year olds. Although the majority of self-harm behaviour is not accompanied by a desire to die, all self-harm regardless of motivation is associated with increased risk of suicidal thoughts and plans, particularly when it is carried out repeatedly.