Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Self-harm increasing among girls

TEENAGE girls are more likely to be admitted to hospital for overdoses, slashed limbs or other forms of deliberate self-harm than for any other type of injury, including road accidents.

The alarming development, revealed in new national figures, illustrate the effects of intense academic pressure, changing family dynamics and rising drug and alcohol use, experts say.

The rate of self-harm among girls aged 13 to 19 has risen by one-third in the past eight years, moving in the opposite direction to the improved suicide rate, analysis from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows. For every 100,000 girls in that age group, 300 were admitted to hospital after harming themselves last year, compared with 100 boys, the institute's report, Making Progress, says. The report brings together key measures of children's health and social wellbeing from several government sources.

Bruce Tonge, the head of Monash University's Centre for Developmental Psychiatry, said increasing academic pressure, even on high-achieving girls, was undermining their self-esteem at a vulnerable age.

Busy parents who set strict rules but did not put aside time to talk to their teenagers could be especially damaging. "There may be some alienation within families," Professor Tonge said.

Youth suicide rates were down, he said, probably as a result of suicide prevention programs and better treatments for depression, but while there was an overlap between suicide and self-harm, "they're not the same behaviour. [Self-harm is] a cry for help, a communication where other communications have failed."

There was also, "a copycat element, a cultural element," to

self-harming, Professor Tonge said, with the practice apparently more socially acceptable in some countries than others. And self-harm was promoted within some youth subcultures.

Patrick McGorry, the chairman of the executive committee of the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, which operates 30 youth mental health centres under the Headspace program, said the self-harm rates were indicative of worsening psychological health.

Young people already suffered, "the worst mental health of the whole life cycle", Professor McGorry said, and evidence from Britain and elsewhere suggested this was deteriorating with successive generations.

This might be because of, "the changing landscape of transition to adulthood … People are now in the mid-20s before they are financially and socially independent." Fees for higher education and debt created extra pressure, Professor McGorry said.

"Young people are not well equipped to deal with unbearable feelings and can be totally overwhelmed," he said.

Brain development was incomplete and this meant teenagers often could not manage intense emotions.

But self-harming could become, "recurrent or even a bit addictive", if it gave temporary relief from the negative emotion.

Increasing alcohol use was likely to be another factor, Professor McGorry said, because it lessened inhibitions that might otherwise stop young people from harming themselves.

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