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Self-harm study prompts calls for earlier intervention

Australian children are reporting self-harm as early as grade 6, a new study shows.

Researchers assessed more than 1200 children living in Melbourne each year from age 8-9 years to 11-12 years.

Twenty-eight of the 1059 students in the study reported self-harm at age 11 and 12 years. Of those who self-harmed, two thirds (64.3 per cent) were females and one third (35.7 per cent) were males.

In grades 3-5, predictors of future self-harm in grade 6 included persistent symptoms of depression or anxiety, bullying and alcohol consumption. For children aged 11-12, associations with self-harm were having few friends, poor emotional control, engaging in anti-social behaviour and being in mid-late puberty.

Participants who reported having few friends, and those who had experienced bullying victimisation, were seven and 24 times more likely to have self-harmed at age 11-12 years, respectively.

Those who self-harmed were also more than seven times more likely to report depressive symptoms and five times more like to report anxiety than peers who had not self-harmed.

Lead researcher Dr Rohan Borschmann said the research sheds light on the impact of peer relationships, including bullying, mental health problems, and puberty on children.

“The transition from childhood to adolescence is a critical time for kids and challenging experiences can have a huge impact on their self-esteem and friendships during this development phase.”

The research, led by a team from the University of Melbourne and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and published today in PLOS ONE, prompted calls for intervention efforts to start earlier.

Senior author Professor George Patton said: “These days many high schools participate in mental health and resilience programs, but our research shows that prevention strategies are needed much earlier.

“Promoting and nurturing better relationships with other students is also particularly important.”

The researchers noted that the sample was slightly skewed towards higher socioeconomic status and had a higher percentage of participants who identified as Indigenous than the general Australian population.

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