Risk factors for repetition of self-harm: a systematic review of prospective hospital-based studies

PLoS One. 2014 Jan 20;9(1):e84282. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0084282. eCollection 2014.


Background: Self-harm entails high costs to individuals and society in terms of suicide risk, morbidity and healthcare expenditure. Repetition of self-harm confers yet higher risk of suicide and risk assessment of self-harm patients forms a key component of the health care management of self-harm patients. To date, there has been no systematic review published which synthesises the extensive evidence on risk factors for repetition.

Objective: This review is intended to identify risk factors for prospective repetition of self-harm after an index self-harm presentation, irrespective of suicidal intent.

Data sources: PubMed, PsychInfo and Scirus were used to search for relevant publications. We included cohort studies which examining factors associated with prospective repetition among those presenting with self-harm to emergency departments. Journal articles, abstracts, letters and theses in any language published up to June 2012 were considered. Studies were quality-assessed and synthesised in narrative form.

Results: A total of 129 studies, including 329,001 participants, met our inclusion criteria. Some factors were studied extensively and were found to have a consistent association with repetition. These included previous self-harm, personality disorder, hopelessness, history of psychiatric treatment, schizophrenia, alcohol abuse/dependence, drug abuse/dependence, and living alone. However, the sensitivity values of these measures varied greatly across studies. Psychological risk factors and protective factors have been relatively under-researched but show emerging associations with repetition. Composite risk scales tended to have high sensitivity but poor specificity.

Conclusions: Many risk factors for repetition of self-harm match risk factors for initiation of self-harm, but the most consistent evidence for increased risk of repetition comes from long-standing psychosocial vulnerabilities, rather than characteristics of an index episode. The current review will enhance prediction of self-harm and assist in the efficient allocation of intervention resources.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Hospitals / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Risk Factors
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / epidemiology*
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / etiology

Grant support

CL was funded through the Health Research Board PhD in Health Services Research. The National Suicide Research Foundation is funded by the National Office for Suicide Prevention. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.