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The demographics of those most at risk of self-harm
Posted in Recovery, Research, Trauma - 0 Comments


Nonsuicidal self-injury, often simply called self-injury, is the act of deliberately harming the surface of your own body such as cutting or burning yourself. It’s typically not intended as a suicide attempt. Rather, this type of self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration. However, repeated self-harm is the strongest risk factor for suicide.

A study by the National Self-Harm Registry Ireland recently showed that certain demographics are most at risk of entering into self-injurious behavior, making it vitally important to stay aware of the warning signs in these populations and get treatment before more serious and life-threatening damage can result.

Populations most a threat to themselves

Assessing the sociodemographic and behavioral traits of people ages 10–29 appearing in emergency departments with consecutive self-harm attempts, the study found that . The risk of continued attempts was assessed using survival analysis and the length of time between occurrences.

The risk of recurring self-harm was approximately the same between genders. The exception was in the 20 to 24-year-old age group where males were more at risk than females. Individuals who used self-cutting were at higher risk for repeat occurrences than those using intentional drug overdose, especially among females. Age was linked with repeated attempts only in females, especially adolescents ages 15-19 years, who were at increased risk compared to the 20-24 age range. Self-harm risk was significantly increased by the number of previous episodes.

The study also noted that the time between the second and third incidents was longer than the time between the first and second incidents among patients with three episodes in one year. The same time period was reduced in patients with four to more than 30 incidents.

The data concluded that those with the highest risk for repeated self-harm were 15-19-year-old females and 20 to 24-year-old males. To prevent risk of self-harm, all emergency department self-harm patients should be provided with a risk assessment.

Understanding self-harm

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), self-harm is not a mental illness unto itself, but a behavior resulting from a lack of coping skills. It has, however, been associated with mental illnesses such as borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety and PTSD. The condition appears most often during the teen years or as a young adult.

Although self-harm is not considered a suicide attempt, it is an indicator of emotional distress. A person who can intentionally hurt themselves may be at a higher risk for suicide than others. People at increased risk for self-harm have often experienced some kind of trauma or abuse or neglect as a child. Traumatic events can include the following:

  • Rape
  • Sexual assault
  • Domestic violence
  • Natural disasters (earthquakes, tornadoes)
  • Severe illness or injury
  • The death of a loved one
  • Witnessing violence or an accident

To prevent self-harm from occurring in response to trauma, it is vitally important to seek professional mental health treatment.

Treatment for trauma

Trauma does respond to treatment. The first step is a visit to one’s family doctor, who may make a referral to a mental health professional. Currently, there are no blood tests or physical exams to diagnose emotional distress so a therapist relies on detailed patient information and sharp observation skills.

Medication will be prescribed at the physician’s discretion and a course of appropriate therapy is usually recommended. There are several kinds of therapy and they depend upon the diagnosis:

  • Psychodynamic therapy focuses on exploring past experiences and emotions
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches a person to recognize negative thought patterns and replace them with positive thoughts. Coping skills are also taught
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy helps a person learn new coping skills

Treatment for trauma is best done in a safe, secure environment, such as a residential health facility, where patients can receive focused treatment as free from triggers as possible. Sovereign Health’s women’s only treatment facility in Chandler, Arizona, specializes in the treatment of trauma-related behavioral health disorders.

Our facility’s ROAR initiative creates a healing milieu of treatment by training every single staff member, from clinicians to cooks, in trauma-informed and dialectical behavioral therapy-informed care. Patients learn healthy ways to cope with and recover from their trauma and to prevent thoughts of self-harm.

If you or a loved one would like further information, please call Sovereign’s 24/7 helpline. Our representatives will be happy to assist you.

About the author

Veronica McNamara is a staff writer for Sovereign Health. She is a former registered nurse who enjoys writing about the causes and treatment of addictions and behavioral health disorders. She is a proponent of further public education on the subject of mental illness which, unfortunately, still bears an unwarranted stigma. For more information and other inquiries on this article, contact the author at

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