Self-harm in young adolescents (12–16 years): Onset and short-term continuation in a community sample

Paul Stallard, Melissa Spears, Alan A Montgomery, Rhiannon Phillips, Kapil Sayal

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To investigate the prevalence of self-harm in young adolescents and factors associated with onset and continuity over a one year period.


Prospective longitudinal study. Participants were young adolescents (n = 3964) aged 12–16 years attending 8 secondary schools in the Midlands and South West of England.


Over a one year period 27% of young adolescents reported thoughts of self-harm and 15% reported at least one act of self-harm. Of those who self-harmed, less than one in five (18%) had sought help for psychological problems of anxiety or depression. Compared with boys, girls were at increased risk of developing thoughts (OR 1.61, 95% CI 1.26-2.06) and acts (OR 1.40, 95% CI 1.06-1.84) of self-harm, particularly amongst those girls in school year 9 (aged 13/14, thoughts adjusted Odds Ratio (aOR) 1.97, 95% CI 1.27-3.04; acts aOR 2.59, 95% CI 1.52-4.41). Of those reporting thoughts of self-harm at baseline, 60% also reported these thoughts at follow-up. Similarly 55% of those who reported an act of self-harm at baseline also reported that they had self-harmed at follow-up. Insecure peer relationships increased the likelihood that boys and girls would develop self-harming behaviours, as did being bullied for boys. Low mood was associated with the development of self-harming thoughts and behaviours for boys and girls, whilst a strong sense of school membership was associated with a reduced risk of developing thoughts of self-harm for boys and increased the likelihood of self-harming thoughts and behaviours ceasing for girls.


Self harm in young adolescents is common with one in four reporting self-harming thoughts and one in six engaging in self-harming behaviour over a one year period. Self-harm is already established by 12/13 years of age and for over half of our sample, self-harming thoughts and behaviour persisted over the year. Secure peer and strong school relationships were associated with less self-harm. Few seek help for psychological problems, suggesting a need to increase awareness amongst all professionals who work with young adolescents about self-harm and associated risk factors.
Original languageEnglish
Article number328
JournalBMC Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 2 Dec 2013


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