Self-harming behaviour down in some groups, up in others, study suggests

Children and youth in Alberta going to emergency rooms for self-harming behaviour were more often from families who received government subsidies, according to a new University of Alberta study.

Children and youth in Alberta going to emergency rooms for self-harming behaviour were more often from families who received government subsidies, according to a new University of Alberta study.

The self-harming included anything from cutting to asphyxiation.

The Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry study published in the March edition of the Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine looked at 6,000 hospital visits of young patients from 2002 until 2011.

“We can’t confirm whether they wanted to die or not. We do know that the intent was to harm oneself,” said Amanda Newton, lead study author and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics.

But it would be reasonable to say that some wanted to end their lives and some were self-harming as a maladaptive coping strategy, she said.

The average age of patients was 16.

The study found First Nations children and youth, who only represented six per cent of Alberta’s youngsters, made up 16 per cent of all visits for self-harming.

“It confirms to us that we need to have cultural-sensitive assessments. We need to think about particular subgroups of kids and what might make them more vulnerable than other children and try to tailor our policies and programs to their needs. Potentially not a generic one-size-fits-all approach and thinking about specific things certain kids need to help keep them safe and to replace self-harming behaviours with more productive coping strategies,” Newton said.

Research showed the rate of self-harming behaviour made up 19 per cent of all mental health visits by youth to emergency rooms in 2002-03. By 2011-12, that number had dropped to 13 per cent.

“Overall, we’re seeing the rates go down for self harm, but for some groups why are they going up? Is it because we don’t have enough services? Maybe. Is it that stigma has decreased for certain groups of kids? Maybe. It’s probably very multi-pronged in terms of why we’re seeing increases among certain groups.”

Newton was assisted by Conrad Tsang, a U of A medical student.

Research was supported by funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and Tsang received support from Alberta Innovates Health Solutions, and the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.

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