Youth suicide dropping, but self harm on the rise
Experts say depression and anxiety can manifest themselves in self harm. (ABC News: Giulio Saggin)
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Australia has managed to reduce the number of teenage suicides but the latest figures from the Institute of Health and Welfare show there is a new problem that needs to be tackled, self harm.
In the past decade there has been an alarming rise in the number of young people who intentionally hurt themselves, with more than 7,000 taken to hospital in one year.
Youth suicide has long been recognised as a real and significant issue in Australian society.
But Professor George Patton from the Centre for Adolescent Health says more commonly, deep emotional pain can manifest itself as self harm.
“The act is not necessarily about killing yourself and for most young people self harm is not about killing yourself, it’s a way of dealing with emotions that you’re finding difficult,” he said.
“They may be emotions of feeling anxious, feeling angry, feeling unhappy, a mixture of all of the above.”
The latest figures from the Institute of Health and Welfare, released this morning, reveal the rate of self harm is rising dramatically.
In the decade from 1996 to 2006, the rate of hospitalisations from self-harm went up by 43 per cent among young people.
For young women, the increase was even higher at 51 per cent.
The institute’s Deanna Eldridge says that equates to 7,300 young people in the most recent statistical year.
“Overall it only accounts for about 2 per cent of all hospitalisations of young people, but in terms of injury it’s about the sixth leading cause of hospitalisation.
The Institute’s figures show about 80 per cent of the hospitalisations for self-harm were for deliberate poisoning.
Professor Patton says that is a reflection of the most serious cases but it is really only the tip of the iceberg and most cases of self-harm do not need immediate medical attention.
“The commonest type of self harm the young people report is deliberately cutting themselves,” he said.
“Self poisoning is the next most common and then things like deliberate risk taking, beating up on yourself or self battery – they’re less common again.”
Self harm is most common during puberty and reaches a peak at an average age of 15.
It is a problem all around the world and the rise of cases in Australia fits with similar trends in other Western countries.
Professor Patten says there is a growing feeling that the rise in self harm is actually a reflection of the growth of individualism and loss of connections.
“They are really important for young people as they’re growing up and so kids are growing up feeling that they actually need to deal with their problems themselves,” he said.
Youth depression groups, like Reach Out! have helped make progress in bringing down the suicide rate but spokesman Jonathan Nicholas thinks the figures show there is still a lot of work to do.
“We’ve made some good inroads into suicide but the journey is far from over and it says that we’ve actually got to do more in intervening early with young people and getting them to the supports they need and making sure that they are not reaching the point where they want to die,” he said.
Adapted from an AM report by youth affairs reporter Michael Turtle.
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