Looking the Other Way: Young People and Self-Harm

Looking the Other Way: Young People and Self-Harm

15 March 2016


Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health has released a report that opens the lid on the unacceptable high rate of self-harm among young people in Australia today exposing the damaging effects of stigma associated with self-harm and the inability of available services to deal with it.

Titled ‘Looking the Other Way’, the report is the first in the country that looks systematically and comprehensively into the largely hidden and misunderstood behaviour of self-harm among 12-25 year olds.

In particular, the report exposes the often crippling impact that self-harm can have on young people, on their families and on the broader community.  It also examines the gaping holes in the level of care that young people receive when seeking help and the negative effect this has on their long term well-being and recovery.

The report confirms that the number of young people who engage in self-harm in Australia is alarmingly high citing a community survey that reveals that 24.4 per cent of young women, and 18.1 percent of young males aged 20-24 years reported they had self-injured in their lifetime.  Many of these young people will go on to experience a number of adverse outcomes including severe injury including death from suicide because of the behaviour.  Of these young people however, only one half will seek help for their self-harming because of the considerable stigma around the behaviour and the lack of community understanding of the issue, the report shows.

The report also highlights that parents, schools and other community members are struggling to respond the self-harm in young people highlighting a demonstrable and urgent need for improved awareness, guidance and strategies on how to effectively respond.

‘Schools are often the front line when it comes to supporting young people with self-harm yet there is no evidence-based national guidance to help them best identify and support these young people. This needs to be addressed as a priority’ says lead author of the report, Dr Jo Robinson, Head of Suicide Prevention at Orygen.

The report also reveals that when young people do seek help they regularly experience negative and damaging responses from front-line professionals including dismissiveness, trivialisation and scepticism regarding the motivations for their behaviour with inadequate levels of follow-up care offered.

Dr Jo Robinson says ‘One of the most striking things to come out of this report is the sub-optimal treatment some young people with self-harm receive in emergency departments and it’s just not acceptable. Young people told us some terrible stories about being stapled without anaesthetic by medical staff. That wouldn’t be acceptable in any other form of medicine so why is it seen to be ok here? This combined with the stigma and shame when it comes to talking about self-harm mean that it’s no wonder rates of help-seeking are so low’.

The report highlights key recommendations including;

The need to address the damaging responses to young people who self-harm

That responses to self-harm in young people could best be delivered through a systemic, multi sectorial approach

Act on the opportunities to improve interventions and treatment responses for young people who self-harm through the use of reputable and evidence-based e-mental health technologies

Dr Robinson stresses that young people themselves must be part of the reform process, ‘young people want to be part of the solution; they want to tell their stories; It’s time to stop looking the other way and to tackle the issue of self-harm among Australia’s youth head on with young people themselves front and centre’, she says.

Download the two page summary