Nonsuicidal self-harm in youth: a population-based survey

CMAJ. 2008 Jan 29;178(3):306-12. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.061693.


Background: Nonsuicidal self-harm includes cutting, scratching, burning and minor overdosing. There have been few studies that have examined the rate of self-harm and mental-health correlates among community-based youth. We performed a population-based study to determine the prevalence of nonsuicidal self-harm, its mental-health correlates and help-seeking behaviour.

Methods: We used data from the Victoria Healthy Youth Survey, a population-based longitudinal survey of youth aged 14-21 in Victoria, British Columbia. The survey included questions about the history, method, frequency, age of onset and help-seeking for nonsuicidal self-harm. Youth were interviewed between February and June 2005. Univariable group differences were analyzed using students t test for continuous data and chi2 for binary or categorical data. Multivariate analyses were conducted by use of multivariate analysis of variance and logistic regression.

Results: Ninety-six of 568 (16.9%) youth indicated that they had ever harmed themselves. Self-injuries such as cutting, scratching and self-hitting were the most common forms of nonsuicidal self-harm (83.2%). The mean age of onset was 15.2 years. Of those who reported nonsuicidal self-harm, 56% had sought help for this behaviour. Participants who reported 5 or more symptoms (out of 6) in a given symptom category were more likely than those who reported less than 5 symptoms to report nonsuicidal self-harm for the following categories: depressive mood (odds ratio [OR] 2.18, confidence interval [CI] 1.28-3.7) and problems with regulation of attention, impulsivity and activity (OR 2.24, CI 1.33-3.76).

Interpretation: We found a high lifetime prevalence of nonsuicidal self-harm. Many mental-health symptoms were associated with this behaviour, particularly those with depressive mood and attention-related problems. Just over half of youth reported seeking help for nonsuicidal self-harm. Clinicians who encounter youth should be vigilant to assess for this behaviour in youth who present with mental health issues.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • British Columbia / epidemiology
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Child
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / epidemiology*