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 

Alone and Hurting Themselves in Germany

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Dedicated first responders, police officers, and doctors work tirelessly to protect men, women, and children from natural and human threats. But who will keep the depressed and anxious from harming themselves? The urgency of finding an answer to that question manifests itself in a new German study of self-harm among Germans age 14 and older. Though therapists and others may help some of those vulnerable to self-abusive tendencies, this new study concludes that—at least among adults—marital status signals vulnerability, with singles decidedly more prone to harming themselves than are married peers. 

Completed by scholars at a number of European institutions, this study brought together researchers from Hannover Medical School, the University of Leuven, University Antwerp, and the University of Leipzig.  These researchers analyze the prevalence of “self-directed harmful behaviors” in the German population and identify the characteristics of those most likely to engage in such self-harming behaviors.  

To resolve their questions about self-harming behaviors, the researcers examine data collected in 2015 from a nationally representative sample of 2,507 Germans ages 14 and up. These data expose a wide range of self-harming behaviors, including deliberately starving oneself, abusing laxatives, driving recklessly, cutting oneself, head-banging, and attempting suicide. What is more, the researchers find a “relatively high” prevalence of such self-harming behaviors: almost half of study participants (49%) had engaged in “at least one self-harming behavior over the life-span.” Clearly, “self-harm constitutes a common problem.”

Not all Germans are equally likely to harm themselves. The problem appears especially acute among young males, among the obese, and among anxious, depressed, and impulsive individuals.

But given the retreat from wedlock and family life in Western Europe in recent decades, perhaps no finding from the recent study is more disturbing than that those living alone are especially vulnerable to self-harm. According to the researchers, “Individuals currently living with a partner exhibited less self-harm than those being single, living apart, being divorced, or widowed.” More specifically, when the researchers compare scores on the Self-Harm Index, they find that “individuals currently living together with a partner scored considerably lower . . . than those without a partner” (average scores of 0.91 and 1.53; p < 0.001).  The researchers report that “subsequent separate analyses for men and women revealed similar differences.”

The researcher cannot see any way to “draw causal conclusions” from their data about the relationship between marital status and self-harm. And in the absence of such conclusions, they cannot determine “if marital status constitutes a protective factor against self-harm or if self-harm prevents successful partnership.” 

But regardless of which way the cause-consequence relationship runs, it appears painfully obvious that wherever wedding bells have stopped ringing and single-person households have multiplied, a tragically high number of isolated individuals are hurting themselves.

(Astrid Müller et al., “Prevalence and Correlates of Self-Harm in the German General Population,” PLOS ONE 11.6 [2016]: e0157928, Web.)