The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Hurting Themselves

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

With good reason, public officials worry about protecting adolescents from violent criminals. Unfortunately, the violence that many adolescents suffer is often self-inflicted. Indeed, British scholars from Oxford and the University of Stirling see deliberate self-harm as a huge problem among troubled teens. In a study in Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, the researchers write, “Deliberate self-harm (DSH) represents one of the leading causes of admission of adolescents to general hospitals and is a major health and social problem in this age group.” In fact, the investigators fear that “DSH which results in hospital admission is only the tip of the iceberg,” noting with concern that such self-harm is a strong statistical predictor of “future suicide attempts and completed suicide.”

But what social circumstances are mostly likely to foster such self-harm? To answer this question, the researchers analyze data collected in two surveys, six months apart, of 500 adolescents attending British secondary schools. These data identify teens growing up without both parents as adolescents particularly at risk for this pathological behavior. Among teens not living with both parents, the risk of first-time deliberate self-harm appears elevated (odds ratio, 1.26), but not enough to reach the threshold of statistical significance. However, the likelihood of “Repeat DSH” appears very strongly linked to family structure. Compared to peers living with both parents, adolescents from broken homes were more than three and a half times more likely (odds ratio, 3.55; p = .09) to have committed “repeat deliberate self-harm” against themselves. Not surprisingly, in committing deliberate self-harm against themselves, “the repeaters reported significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety, and lower levels of optimism and self-esteem compared to those who had not self-harmed.”

To reduce the problem of deliberate self-harm, the authors recommend “school-based programs focused on how young people cope with psychosocial stressors.” Finding ways to keep adolescents in intact married-couple families might seem the most promising strategy.

(Rory C. O’Connor, Susan Rasmussen, and Keith Hawton, “Predicting Deliberate Self-Harm in Adolescents: A Six Month Prospective Study,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 39.4 [August 2009]: 364–74.)