www.thelancet.com Vol 379 June 23, 2012 2373
Lancet 2012; 379: 2373–82
See Editorial page 2314
See Comment page 2316
See Perspectives page 2333
This is the first in a Series
of three papers about suicide
Centre for Suicide Research,
University Department of
Psychiatry, University of
Oxford, Oxford, UK
(Prof K Hawton DSc,
K E A Saunders MRCPsych); and
Suicidal Behaviour Research
Group, School of Natural
Sciences, Stirling University,
(Prof R C O’Connor PhD)
Prof Keith Hawton, Centre for
Suicide Research, University
Department of Psychiatry,
Oxford OX3 7JX, UK
Self-harm and suicide in adolescents
Keith Hawton, Kate E A Saunders, Rory C O’Connor
Self-harm and suicide are major public health problems in adolescents, with rates of self-harm being high in the teenage
years and suicide being the second most common cause of death in young people worldwide. Important contributors to
self-harm and suicide include genetic vulnerability and psychiatric, psychological, familial, social, and cultural factors.
The effects of media and contagion are also important, with the internet having an important contemporary role.
Prevention of self-harm and suicide needs both universal measures aimed at young people in general and targeted
initiatives focused on high-risk groups. There is little evidence of effectiveness of either psychosocial or pharmacological
treatment, with particular controversy surrounding the usefulness of antidepressants. Restriction of access to means for
suicide is important. Major challenges include the development of greater understanding of the factors that contribute
to self-harm and suicide in young people, especially mechanisms underlying contagion and the effect of new media.
The identification of successful prevention initiatives aimed at young people and those at especially high risk, and the
establishment of effective treatments for those who self-harm, are paramount needs.
Adolescent self-harm is a major public health concern.
Although suicide is uncommon in adolescents compared
with non-fatal self-harm, it is always a tragic outcome, and
prevention of suicide in young people is under standably a
focus of national strategies for suicide prevention. In this
paper, we discuss self-harm and suicide in adolescents in
terms of epidemiology (especially international differ-
ences); developmental aspects of self-harm, including
short-term and long-term outcomes; factors that contribute
to the behaviour; and treatment and prevention. This is a
selective paper directed at any professional with an interest
in adolescent suicide and self-harm. We have two aims: to
provide a synthesis of the evidence for adolescent self-
harm and suicide and to identify key areas of uncertainty.
Only a small proportion of individuals who self-harm
present to hospitals, meaning that this behaviour is
largely hidden (at least from clinical services) at the
community level (figure 1).
There is no agreed definition of adolescence—chrono-
logical age is just one of several ways it can be defined (as
opposed to physical characteristics or cogni tive develop-
ment). The upper age limit used to define adolescence in
studies varies between 18 years and 25 years. As a result,
some of the findings we present in this paper will include
those for individuals older than 18 years.
Self-harm refers to intentional self-poisoning or self-
injury, irrespective of type of motive or the extent of
suicidal intent.1,2 It is used here in preference to the
dichotomous separation of such acts into non-suicidal
self-injury (proposed as a new diagnosis for the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition)
and attempted suicide—now popular in the USA—
because suicidal intent is a dimensional phenomenon, the
patient’s and clinician’s view of suicidal intent might
differ, and national clinical guidelines focus on self-harm.1
However, in view of the inconsistent use of terminology,
we have whenever possible used terms that authors of the
respective studies have used.
Although international variation exists, findings from
many community-based studies show that around 10%
of adolescents report having self-harmed, of whom some
will report some extent of suicidal intent underpinning
their self-harm.3–7 Such studies consistently show that
self-harm is more common in female adolescents than it
is in male adolescents.3–5,8 Presentation to hospital occurs
in only about one in eight adolescents who self-harm in
the community, being more common in those who
Rates of hospital-treated self-harm are also higher in
female adolescents than they are in male adolescents.2,9
Self-harm presentations become increasingly common
from age 12 years onwards, particularly in girls, such that
between ages 12 years and 15 years the girl-to-boy ratio is
as high as five or six to one. There have been few studies
of self-harm in individuals younger than 12 years, making
the estimation of self-harm in children in the community
impossible, but presentations to hospital after self-harm
are rare in this age group. The sex ratio decreases with age
Search strategy and selection criteria
We searched the following databases for the period January,
2001, to August, 2011: PsycINFO, PubMed, and Web of
Knowledge. We used the following search terms: “suicid*”,
“self-harm”, “self-injur*”, and “adolescen*”. We used no
language restrictions. We selected key papers from the
identified publications on the basis of topic covered and quality
of research. We supplemented these publications with earlier
landmark papers with our knowledge of the area. We modified
our reference list on the basis of comments from peer reviewers.
www.thelancet.com Vol 379 June 23, 2012
in the later teenage years as the behaviour becomes
increasingly common in boys and levels off in girls.2,10 Self-
harm rates are higher in adolescents from lower
socioeconomic groups.11 Judging from hospital statistics,
self-harm has greatly increased in frequency in adolescents
in the past few decades, with a major rise in presentations
in the late 1960s and 1970s, and a further rise seen in
female adolescents in the UK in the 1990s.2 Why this
increase has occurred is unclear, but greater availability of
medication, increased stress facing adoles cents, greater
alcohol and drug con sump tion, and social transmission of
the behaviour are possible contributory factors.
Methods of self-injury are heterogeneous, including acts
such as self-cutting, jumping from heights and self-battery,
with some authors also including non-recreational risk-
taking. Self-cutting is the most common method of self-
harm in adolescents in the community, as seen in the
Child and Adolescent Self-harm in Europe (CASE) Study.4,5
This finding contrasts with methods used by adolescents
presenting to hospital after self-harm, in whom self-
poisoning is by far the most common.2,9 In some countries,
particularly the UK, para cetamol (including compounds)
is often used for self-poisoning.2
Why does self-harm increase rapidly during the early
teenage years and why is the girl-to-boy sex ratio so high,
especially around the age of 13–15 years? A survey that
used a measure of pubertal stage in individuals aged
12–15 years in schools in Australia and the USA showed
that the onset of self-harm was related to pubertal
phase, especially late or completed puberty, rather than
chronological age. This trend was especially pronounced
in girls and for self-cutting. Other factors independently
increasing the risk of self-harm were depressive symp-
toms, alcohol misuse, and onset of sexual activity.12 The
striking association of self-harm with puberty and
affective symptoms might be related to emerging
evidence of a period of particular neuro developmental
vulnerability around this time, with increased risk of
emotional disorders13 and risk-taking behaviours. This
vulnerability might be associated with particular develop-
ments in the cortical brain regions after puberty.
Adolescents might also be more susceptible to negative
social cues such as ostracism and the expectations of
others.14,15 The motivational explanations adolescents give
for self-harm vary widely and are often multiple. At the
community level, individuals who self-harm by cutting
differ somewhat from those who take overdoses, with
suicidal intention more often indicated for self-poisoning,
and self-punishment and tension relief for self-cutting.16
Adolescents presenting to hospital after self-harm often
attribute the act to suicidal intent, along with other
motives, including escape from intolerable distress or
situations, and a means of showing others how bad they
feel.17–19 Clinical staff, however, less often view the
behaviour as being suicidal.19 The high levels of suicidal
intention reported by adolescents who self-harm in both
community and hospital samples raises the question of
how much their actions are caused by a true wish to die,
or a wish to temporarily escape from an intolerable state
of mind or situation.18 This question draws attention to
the need to better understand the meaning (or meanings)
behind an act of self-harm or suicide.
Repetition of self-harm is common in adolescents. Of
those who self-harmed in the year before being surveyed
in the CASE Study (N=2410), more than half (55% of
female adolescents and 53% of male adolescents)
reported multiple events.4 In a large sample (N=1583) of
adolescents presenting to a general hospital in England,
15% re-presented to the same hospital after further self-
harm within a year2—clearly an underestimate of all
repeat episodes in view of the level of occurrence in the
commun ity and possible presentation to non-study
hospitals. Repe ti tion is more likely with self-cutting than
with self-poisoning.20 Depression, history of sexual
abuse, expo sure to self-harm, and concerns about sexual
orien tation are among the predictors of repetition.21,22 It is
useful to dis tinguish repeat acts that occur in relation to
a phase of emotional distress from those that are part of
a habitual pattern or are linked to a recurrence of
Factors associated with self-harm
Self-harm (and suicide) in adolescents are the end-
products of a complex interplay between genetic, bio-
logical, psychiatric, psychological, social, and cultural
factors (panel 1 and figure 2). Experts emphasise
diathesis-stress explanations in theoretical formulations,
specifically that predisposing biological (eg, serotonin
imbalances), personality (eg, perfectionism, impulsivity),
and cognitive vulnerabilities (eg, impaired social problem-
solving) combine with exposure to negative life events,
including both early and recent life adversity, and
psychiatric disorders to increase risk of self-destructive
behaviours across the lifespan.23 There has also been
growing focus on the functions of self-harm.24 A further
theoretical development has been the distinction between
factors associated with the development of thoughts of
self-harm or suicide (eg, feeling defeated and trapped)
and those that increase the likelihood that such thoughts
will be translated into actual suicidal behaviour (eg,
impulsivity, exposure to self-harm by others).6,25
(presenting to clinical services)
Self-harm in the community
(not presenting to clinical services)
Figure 1: Representation of the relative prevalence self-harm and suicide in
www.thelancet.com Vol 379 June 23, 2012 2375
Child and family adversity, maladaptive parenting, and
parental divorce are associated with self-harm.21,26,27 Case-
control studies reinforce the independent contribution of
exposure to childhood adversity and serious suicide
attempts in adolescence.28 Child and adolescent sexual
and physical abuse are also associated with self-harm
Exposure to negative life events is a key factor associated
with self-harm.15,29 Additionally, individuals who self-harm
report more stressful life events than those who experience
self-destructive thoughts but do not act on them.25 Indeed,
interpersonal difficulties during ado les cence (including
difficulty making new friends, fre quent arguments with
adults in authority and peers, fre quent cruelty toward
peers, loneliness, and inter personal isolation) are indepen-
dent predictors of suicide attempts in late adoles cence or
early adulthood.27 Cross-sectional and prospective school-
based studies have drawn atten tion to the association
between bullying and self-harm in both male and female
adolescents.3,5,22 However, more research into the mech-
anisms through which bullying increases the risk of self-
harm is needed, as is research into the effect of different
modes of bullying (eg, cyber-bullying vs face-to-face
bullying) on young people’s mental health.
Exposure to self-harm and suicide of others (family and
friends) is associated with adolescent self-harm.3,5,22 The
self-harm of others probably provides a behavioural
model for vulnerable individuals, thereby increasing
the likelihood that thoughts of self-harm are acted on.25
Also, vulnerable people might cluster together, thereby
having shared stressors, and self-harm is their response
to a shared stressful event rather than a modelling-type
response.30 Social transmission is especially important
for self-cutting in girls.20 Clinicians should ask a young
person about their exposure to self-harm, especially if the
young person reports self-destructive thoughts.25
Self-harm is associated with concerns about sexual
orientation in both sexes.22 In a New Zealand birth
cohort studied to age 21 years, lesbian, gay, and bisexual
(LGB) young people were six times more likely to have
attempted suicide compared with heterosexual young
people.31 The authors of a systematic review32 concluded
that LGB individuals were four times more likely to
attempt suicide in their life. Although age differences
were not reported, more than 70% of the studies included
in the review comprised people younger than 25 years.
Possible mechanisms to account for the increased risk in
LGB individuals include increased prevalence of mood
disorders, substance misuse, victimisation, bullying, and
social stress.31,32 LGB young people might also have fewer
protective factors than do heterosexual young people.33
Feelings of entrapment, defeat, lack of belonging, and
perceiving oneself as a burden are recognised predictors of
suicidal behaviour.34,35 Less effective social problem-solving
is a common aspect of adolescents who self-harm, but to
what extent these deficits are confounded or mediated by
depression is unclear.36 There is growing evidence that
perfectionism and self-criticism are asso ciated with self-
harm in clinical and community popu la tions.15,18,37 One
dimen sion of perfectionism, an indi vidual’s belief that
others hold unrealistic expecta tions of them, needs
particular attention because it can decrease the threshold
above which negative life events lead to distress.15 Low self-
esteem,22 social isolation,32 impulsivity,25 hopelessness,18
and poor parent–child attachment38 are also associated
with self-harm in adolescents. Impulsivity can act as a link
between childhood abuse and suicidal risk.39 Optimism
might buffer against self-harm, especially in girls.22
The prevalence of psychiatric disorders in young
people who self-harm seems to be of similar magnitude
Panel 1: Risk factors for self-harm and suicide in adolescents
Sociodemographic and educational factors
Individual negative life events and family adversity
Psychiatric and psychological factors
All the factors in the panel have been shown to be related to self-harm. *Shown to be related to suicide.
Figure 2: Key risk factors for adolescent self-harm and suicide
Negative life events
or social problems
to be lethal
to be lethal
www.thelancet.com Vol 379 June 23, 2012
to that seen in adult populations. Thus prevalence figures
of between 48%40 and 87%41 have been recorded in studies
of young people presenting to general hospitals after
self-harm. Depression, anxiety disorders, and substance
misuse are most commonly described, although atten-
tion deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct
disorder are also common. An association seems to exist
between ADHD, conduct disorders, and suicidal behav-
iour, which suggests that ADHD increases the risk of
suicidal behaviour in male adolescents through its effect
on the severity of comorbid disorders such as depression
and conduct disorder.42 Increased impulsivity and risk-
taking might also contribute to the association.
Personality disorders, which are strongly associated
with self-harm and suicide in adults, are customarily
not diagnosed before the age of 18 years because of
continuing developmental changes, but early diagnosis
might be justified if there is clear evidence of pervasive
and consistent symptoms. Follow-up studies of indi-
viduals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder
before the age of 18 years show that they can develop a
range of personality disorders. However, despite these
prognostic uncertainties, an early diagnosis of
personality disorder is commonly associated with self-
injury in adolescents.43
Alcohol misuse is a risk factor for suicidal behaviour in
adolescents. In a large community sample heavy episodic
drinking, known as binge drinking, was associated with
suicide attempts even after controlling for depressive
symptoms.44 This association was most pronounced in
adolescents aged 13 years or younger. Drug use in
adolescents who self-harm is not as well characterised. In
community samples a higher frequency of self-harm was
seen with all categories of drug use.5 Also, 14% of
1331 adolescents presenting to a general hospital after
self-harm reported misusing drugs, this being far more
common in male than it was in female adolescents.2
Adolescence is a period when both suicidal behaviour
and substance misuse increase—poor impulse control is
a risk factor for both.
Smoking is associated with self-harm in adolescents. In
one study45 of adolescents admitted to a psychiatric
hospital, risk for suicide attempts in those who smoked
was four times higher than for those who did not.
Adolescents who smoked were also more likely to engage
in non-suicidal self injury.46 In community samples,
regular smoking is associated with suicide attempts.45 The
association might result from a link between smoking
and depression, or from smoking and self-harm, both
being means of coping with underlying emotional
distress. It might also show vulnerability to risk-taking
behaviour. However, more research is needed to disen-
tangle the extent to which lifestyle factors (eg, smoking,
drinking) are secondary factors rather than direct risk
factors for such behaviour.
Key risk factors for self-harm or suicide that clinicians
should be aware of, especially in adolescents with
psychiatric disorders, are a family history of suicide or self-
harm, previous self-harm, contact with others engag ing in
self-harm, expressed suicidal intent, access to methods for
self-harm or suicide, and lack of social support.
Outcome after self-harm
In most cases, self-harm behaviour in adolescence seems
to cease by early adulthood, although it is more likely to
persist in women than it is in men.7 Persistence to
adulthood is associated with repetition of self-harm over
a lengthy time in adolescence. Adolescent self-harm
might be a marker for risk of affective disorder in young
adulthood.47 Self-harm without expressed suicidal intent
might be followed by acts with greater suicidal intent.48
Prospective studies show a substantial risk of suicide
after adolescent self-harm that results in hospital
presentation (eg, risk of suicide being at least ten times
higher than expected),49 although this risk is very low in
those who are younger than 15 years and who self-
harm.50,51 Similarly, retrospective life-course studies show
that early self-harm is not uncommon in those who die
by suicide in late adolescence or early adulthood.52 Risk of
suicide after self-harm is more likely in male adolescents,
individuals who have had psychiatric care (an indication
of severity of psychiatric disorder), and those who
repeatedly self-harm. Contrary to the beliefs of many
clinicians, self-cutting, including at the last episode of
self-harm in repeaters, is associated with greater risk of
suicide than self-poisoning.51
Suicide in adolescence might be substantially under-
recorded by authorities responsible for death verdicts,
with possible suicides often being given undetermined
or accidental verdicts.53 Such under-reporting might be
done to protect families from the perceived stigma of
suicide. Thus national rates of suicide in young people
should be compared with caution. Also, nationally
recorded statistics are only usually available for com-
parison for individuals aged 10–24 years. Global figures
for suicide in this age group show that it is the
second most common cause of death after road-traffic
accidents—it is the third most common cause of death
in male adolescents (after road-traffic accidents and vio-
lence). Globally, suicide is the most common cause of
death in female adolescents aged 15–19 years.54
Suicide is uncommon before 15 years of age (previously
reported at 1·2 deaths per 100 000 boys aged 5–14 years)
but increases in prevalence through ado lescence
(19·2 deaths per 100 000 male adolescents aged
15–24 years) and into adulthood (28·3 deaths per
100 000 men aged 25–34 years).55 Officially, there are
about 164 000 self-inflicted deaths worldwide each year in
individuals younger than 25 years54—this number is
probably a gross underestimate in view of the substantial
misclassification of suicide in young people. In most
www.thelancet.com Vol 379 June 23, 2012 2377
parts of the world, male adolescents are more likely to die
by suicide than their female peers, with the suicide rate
in male adolescents aged 15–19 years being 2·6 times
that of female adolescents of the same age.56 In some
Asian countries, however, suicide is more common in
young female individuals aged 15–24 years than it is in
their male peers.57 There is also much variability in
prevalence of youth suicide worldwide, with high rates in
countries including Russia, Ukraine, Japan, Lithuania,
Finland, and Hungary, and much lower rates in the UK,
Australia, USA, and Hong Kong (figure 3). In China,
suicide rates (extrapolated from selected regions) are
much higher in rural areas than in urban areas and
female youth (aged 15–24 years) are more likely to die by
suicide than their male peers. Global youth suicide rates
have also changed in the past two decades. Thus, whereas
rates increased from the 1960s through to the 1980s, they
have declined since the 1990s, especially in male youth
(aged 15–24 years).58 Unfortunately, this trend is likely to
reverse with the present worldwide economic recession.
Factors associated with suicide
Risk factors for completed suicide in children and
adolescents share many similarities with those for
self-harm (panel 1). Because research into adolescent
suicide has focused on family origins of the behaviour
and on psychiatric disorders, it is important to note
that the absence of evidence for other risk factors should
not be interpreted as evidence of absence. Factors
that tend to be more youth-specific include restricted
edu cational achievement, family history of suicidal
behaviour, parental separation, divorce, or death, and
Suicidal behaviour aggregates in families. Twin studies
show a high concordance rate for suicidal behaviour in
monozygotic (identical) compared with dizygotic (non-
identical) twins. Even when relevant factors such as
mood disorder, substance abuse, and trauma are
controlled for, suicide in a monozygotic twin conveys a
four-times greater risk of suicidal behaviour in the other
twin.59 An absence of a temporal relation between
suicidal events,59 however, suggests that this association
in twins is not imitative in nature. Risk of suicide in first-
degree relatives of those who have died by suicide is
increased up to four times. Familial transmission of
suicidal behaviour seems to be independent of the
presence of mental illness, and transmission of aggres-
sion seems to be a major con tributor.60 This trans mission
of aggression is consistent with other findings that relate
changes in serotonergic function to both impulsive
aggression and suicidal behaviour.61
Poor family relationships seem to contribute to the
transmission of suicidal behaviour, perhaps by com-
pounding genetic vulnerability. Family discord was the
most common precipitant of completed suicide in one
study.62 Traits such as impulsivity that increase the risk of
suicidal behaviour can also impair parents’ ability to
provide an optimal environment.63
Psychological autopsy studies suggest that prevalence of
mental disorder in adolescents who die by suicide
is similar to that seen in adolescent patients who
self-harm.64 Affective disorders are most common.
Psychiatric disorder seems to be particularly relevant in
male adolescents, in whom suicidal behaviour relates to
psychopathology at as early as 8 years of age.65 The
prevalence of substance abuse disorders varies between
Figure 3: Suicide rates in individuals aged 15–24 years in selected countries
Rate per 100 000
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studies of suicides in young people. Many individuals,
however, have problems related to alcohol and drug
misuse.66 Personality disorders have also been reported in
more than a quarter of young people who die by suicide,
with a further quarter having substantial trait accentuation
not reaching the level of diagnosis.66 Psychiatric disorders
can be less relevant to completed suicide in some low-
income and middle-income countries such as China,
where high fatality rates result from access to lethal
means, particularly availability of pesticides and a lack of
adequate emergency medical facilities.57
Psychosocial stressors, especially relationship prob-
lems, are frequent precipitants for suicide in adolescents.
This is likely to be particularly true in those younger than
14 years, in whom suicide often follows a brief period
of stress, and psychiatric disorder is less common.
Life chart approaches to investigating youth suicide
suggest three groups: those with longstanding life and
behavioural problems, school failure, family relationship
problems, childhood sexual abuse, family violence,
personality problems, low self-esteem, and poor peer
relationships; those with major psychiatric disorder
(including two subgroups—individuals with a protracted
suicidal process and those with a brief suicidal process);
and those in whom the suicidal process occurred as an
acute response to life events.52
The reporting and portrayal of suicidal behaviour in the
media can affect those exposed to such stimuli—an
association with suicide and self-harm has been shown
across a wide range of traditional media, especially those
in which reporting is dramatic and includes details of the
methods used.67 As a result, guidelines for media report-
ing of suicide and self-harm have been developed to
attenuate any detrimental effect. An important issue is
the poten tial effect of new media. As younger people are
more vul nerable to media influences and with the growth
of pro-suicide websites, social media, and chat rooms
(which can encourage suicide pacts), the potential impact
on youth suicide and self-harm is considerable.68 The
challenge is in ensuring that new media provide support
for vulnerable young people rather than helping or
encouraging self-destructive behaviours. Online support
groups and trad itional crisis helplines can contribute to
prevention but controlled studies are needed to show this.
Prevention of self-harm and suicide
Approaches to prevent self-harm and suicide can be
divided into population-based measures, which are
aimed at all young people (eg, educational initiatives),
and measures aimed at high-risk groups (eg, individuals
with a history of abuse, those who self-harm; panel 2).
Activities to prevent suicide and self-harm should take
account of the particular characteristics of adolescent
suicide and self-harm. For example, they should target
issues around the social transmission of suicide and
self-harm, address concerns about sexual orientation
and bullying in young people, promote help-seeking
behaviour, and foster self-esteem and resilience. School-
based suicide prevention strategies are growing and
include screening at-risk young people, gatekeeper
training, skills training, and whole-school programmes.69
Although there is some evidence that screening pro-
grammes can identify at-risk young people not recognised
by school professionals70 and increase uptake of mental
health services in untreated at-risk young people,71 they
have several limitations. Screening pro grammes place a
substantial burden on schools and mental health
providers because school screenings yield many false
positives.69 Also, because suicide risk fluctuates with
time, a one-off screen will likely yield false negatives.
Studies in this area have shown that asking adolescents
about suicidal ideas does not increase risk of suicidality
developing, rather the opposite.72
Gatekeeper training entails training peers and adults to
better recognise warning signs for suicide. Some evidence
exists that such training can improve know ledge and
attitudes about suicide, increase help-seeking behaviour,
and reduce self-harming in the short term (reduced suicide
attempts were seen in one intervention that also had a
screening component73). There is evidence from Scotland
(although not exclusive to adolescents) that ensuring that
such training becomes routine is associated with better
knowledge about suicide in gatekeepers and increased
community capacity.74 Psychological skills training for
school pupils has yielded promising findings in reducing
suicidal ideation,75 but some negative effects have also
been reported (eg, increased anger and reduced school
connectedness76). Whole-school approaches, which posi-
tively change the ethos and culture of a school in relation
to psychological wellbeing, are likely to increase help-
seeking, but there is no clear evidence of direct programme
effects on the reduction of suicide.69 More school-based
approaches targeting adolescent self-harm are needed.
Panel 2: Approaches to prevent self-harm and suicide in adolescents
Measures for at-risk populations
depressed adolescents, abused individuals, runaway children)
www.thelancet.com Vol 379 June 23, 2012 2379
Restriction of access to means for suicide is a key
suicide prevention strategy in adolescents, especially
because of the often impulsive nature of the behaviour.
One important example is limiting availability and safer
storage of firearms within households in countries with
high prevalence of suicide by shooting, with strong
indications that presence of firearms in households
increases risk of adolescent suicide and some evidence
that restriction of their availability reduces this risk.77
Another is safer storage of pesticides in rural areas of
developing countries, where ready availability means that
suicide by pesticide ingestion is common.78 A further
example is limiting pack sizes of drugs that are commonly
used for self-poisoning in young people, such as
paracetamol.79 Crucially, restriction of access to a common
dangerous method does not usually result in individuals
immediately turning to another method.
In view of the fact that the crises associated with self-
harm in adolescents can often resolve quite quickly,
clinicians, especially family doctors, might initially
provide supportive psychosocial care. Specific inter-
ventions will, however, be indicated in many cases,
especially when problems are severe or longstanding
and where self-harm is associated with use of more
dangerous methods or clear suicidal intent. Considering
the extent of self-harm in adolescents, there have been
surprisingly few trials of psychosocial interventions in
those who have self-harmed. Compared with control
treatment, mostly treatment as usual, no differences in
repetition of self-harm were seen for home-based family-
problem-solving therapy (although families preferred
this to the control treatment);80 giving adolescents an
emergency card that would allow them to re-admit
themselves to a paediatric psychiatric inpatient unit if
they were in crisis;81 motivational interviewing to
enhance engagement in therapy;82 and brief psycho-
logical therapy.83 Most trials, however, have been rather
small, without the power to adequately test the effect of
experimental treatment on repetition.
Results of an initial trial of group therapy for
adolescents who repeatedly self-harm seemed promising
in terms of reduced repetition of self-harm,84 but two
subsequent trials did not confirm this in relation to
repetition or other outcomes.85,86 Improvements in
child and adolescent mental health care could have
resulted in treatment-as-usual being more effective than
it previously was.
Overall, there is a shortage of information on which to
base treatment recommendations for adolescents who
self-harm. There is much interest in the use of modified
dialectical behaviour therapy—which has had promising
results in adults with borderline personality disorder—to
treat adolescents with repetitive self-harm and border line
traits.87 Results of randomised trials are awaited.
Encouraging results regarding self-harming behaviour
were seen for multisystemic family-based therapy
compared with psychiatric hospitalisation for suicidal
individuals aged 10–17 years.88
Most young people who self-harm do not seek help
beforehand.5 Concerns about confidentiality and
stigma are reported by adolescents as barriers to
seeking help for suicidal ideation. In a questionnaire
study of a large sample of individuals aged 15–16 years,
respondents suggested that peers might be afraid to ask
for help because of worries that others might find out
and rumours would start circulating around their
school. This concern was more prominent in girls than
in boys. Many adolescents reported concerns about the
stigma of seeking help for self-harm and of being
diagnosed with a mental illness. Some suggested that
help-seeking should be made more normal and should
be accompanied by a wider acceptance that everyone
has problems.89 Cultural context is important when
considering help-seeking behaviour,90 and will affect
not only the recognition and management of suicidal
behaviour, but also the development of culture-specific
Panel 3: Key challenges to prevention of self-harm and suicide in adolescents
individual and how this relates to clinical management
that are acceptable to young people to reduce the risk of adolescent self-harm (its
repetition), suicide, and other outcomes
adolescent help-seeking, and enhance meaningful engagement with health services
they move from child or adolescent to adult services
adolescent mental health
especially firearms and safer storage of pesticides in rural areas of low-income countries
government policies on suicide and self-harm across other risk domains such as
substance abuse and social care
www.thelancet.com Vol 379 June 23, 2012
Concerns about antidepressant use in children and
adolescents were first raised in the UK in 2003 and the
USA in 2004, and were followed by warnings released by
regulatory agencies that there might be an increased risk
of suicide with newer antidepressants. Much of the
concern focused on prescription to younger age groups.
However, the benefits of antidepressant-prescribing
might outweigh the risk of emergent suicidal behaviour.91
Although the risk has been judged to be highest in the
early phases of treatment, risk of death in children as
well as adults was shown not to be increased in the first
month of treatment compared with subsequent months,
and the risk of attempted suicide was highest in the
month before starting antidepressant treatment.92 The
safety warnings had a pronounced effect on prescribing
habits,93 which was ini tially reported to be associated with
an increase in suicide in children in the USA and
Netherlands but this finding was not replicated over a
longer study period in the UK.94
No pharmacotherapy trials have been done for adoles-
cents who self-harm. Treatment trials for depression
comparing antidepressant treatment with psychological
treatment have, however, provided some information. In
the Multicentre Treatment of Adolescent Depression
Study, cognitive behaviour therapy, either alone or
combined with fluoxetine, was associated with greater
reduction in suicidal ideation or acts (combined) than
fluoxetine alone.95 In two other trials,96,97 however, no
difference was seen between cognitive behaviour therapy
and SSRI antidepressant treatment on these outcomes.
Self-harm and suicide are major public health issues in
young people worldwide and there are many challenges
to their management and prevention (panel 3). Much is
now known about their epidemiology and causes but
research efforts should focus on the further identification
of subtypes of those who self-harm or are at risk of
suicide. Indeed, it would be helpful to have a better
understanding of the factors associated with different
levels of self-harm (eg, ideators vs high lethality attempts).
In view of the diverse motives underpinning self-harm, a
better understanding of the meaning of the act and how
this relates to clinical management would be beneficial. It
would be informative to know what factors are associated
with adolescents stopping self-harm. The understanding
of how and when exposure to self-harm and suicide
increases risk of clustering and social contagion has
important clinical implications. Only small advances
have been made in prevention and there is a paucity of
evidence for effective treatment interventions. The
development and assessment of new psychosocial and
pharmacological interventions to reduce self-harm and
suicide should be a major priority, and should include
internet-based interventions. The improvement of mental
health care in adolescents in terms of both access to and
quality of services is essential, especially in low-income
and middle-income countries. Better management of the
care pathway of vulnerable young people as they move
from child and adolescent to adult services to ensure
continuity of care should reduce the risk of suicide.
Policies to promote the restriction of access to the means
of suicide, including access to firearms and safer storage
of pesticides, should be implemented. Development and
assessment of new media and telephone support sources
of help are essential as use of electronic media increases.
The reduction of stigma associated with mental health
problems and help-seeking is also a major challenge.
The emphasis on prevention of self-harm and suicide
in young people in national guidelines is a welcome
All authors contributed to the research, interpretation, and editing of the
paper. RCO’C did the literature search.
Conflicts of interest
We declare that we have no conflicts of interest.
KH is a National Institute for Health Research Senior Investigator. We
thank Sue Simkin for her comments on a draft of this paper.
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