Self-harm is rather common among young people but we tend to think of all self harm in modern times as elaborate cutting rituals and signs of mental illness.  

Not so, many teenagers have at one time scratched, punctured or even cut themselves and hit their head forcefully against a wall - and it is behavior almost as common among boys as it is girls, despite the the steretotype. Labeling young people who self-harm as on a slippery slope to adult psychiatric states is not warranted.  Rather than over-diagnose, some knowledge is needed in order not to over-interpret the behavior of young people, says psychologist Jonas Bjärehed in his thesis at Lund University in Sweden.

Bjärehed and his supervisor Lars Gunnar Lund carried out a survey (naturally) of 1,000 young people in southern Sweden which showed that four out of ten young people had at some time intentionally hurt themselves. They broke down the data and it appears that only a small minority of the young people self-harm on a regular basis and in a way that can be compared with self-harm in adults with mental health problems.

Bjärehed calls self-harm the teenage disease du jour, like eating diseases in the 1970s and 1980s and ADD in the 1990s - even going so far back as the ‘hysterics’ who worried parents at the turn of the last century by fainting for various reasons.

“It is not the first time young people worry those around them with new types of behaviour,” he said. “It is important that school and health professionals know how to deal with young people who self-harm. They need to react appropriately and not judge all young people alike. For many of these young people, the behaviour seems to be fairly mild and often of a temporary nature. It may be viewed as a matter of experimentation or problems that are not of a serious nature.”

When Jonas Bjärehed began his research six years ago, knowledge about self-harm was limited among many professional groups that come into contact with young people. However, he says the situation is improving. Knowledge of true eating disorders in young people is well established among school and health service staff and he hopes that awareness of self-harm will become as widespread. Even if all young people who self-harm do not suffer from mental illness, the behavior can become a vicious circle: once a person has started, the risk is greater that they will continue and the self-harm causes their mental health to deteriorate.

“Nowadays, we are grappling with the fact that many signs of stress and mental illness appear to be increasing in our society, especially among young people, without us really understanding why. The fact that many young people suffer mental health problems during a time in their lives when they are in the process of becoming adults and developing the skills they need to contribute to society has become a serious public health problem. An important challenge is to understand this trend and the signs of mental illness that we are seeing in young people, in order to be able to take the necessary measures to prevent it or provide help.”