Research reveals links between adversity and self-harm

Feb 22 2024 Posted: 09:34 GMT

Teenagers in west of Ireland report decline in wellbeing and mental health

Researchers at University of Galway have identified that young people who have suffered adversity in the home, among peers, or at school are substantially more at risk of self-harm.

Academics at the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre and School of Psychology today published a report on mental health and wellbeing based on results from surveys of more than 15,000 young people in three counties – Galway, Mayo and Roscommon – between 2018 and 2022.

The report, Adolescent Mental Health & Adversity - Profiles and Trends in the West of Ireland 2018-2022, examines statistics from Planet Youth surveys where pupils in 4th year in post-primary schools in the three counties self-report on a range of topics. 

The research focused on patterns of adversity which young people experience across home, peer and school contexts to establish whether these are linked to mental health outcomes or self-harm behaviours.

The researchers aim to use the study to identify protective factors and determine whether personal practices such as sleep and physical activity and whether friend or parental support and school safety are associated with better mental health outcomes and/or act as a buffer for adversity related risk.

The full report can be viewed here

Other key findings from the research are:

  • Adversity increases risk of self-harm and is associated with poorer mental health outcomes among adolescents. 
  • Health behaviours, like sleep and physical activity, and supports from parents, peers and schools, are associated with better mental health outcomes.
  • Young people who experience adversity across multiple contexts (e.g., at home, in school, or with peers) are substantially more at risk of self-harm, compared to youth who do not experience adversity.
  • Approximately 13% of the young people who had little likelihood/probability of experiencing adversity were likely to have self-harmed at some point in their life.
  • This compared to 27% of the young people who experienced parental adversity; 37% of those who experienced adversity amongst peers; and 82% of those who experienced adversity in several ways.
  • Depressive tendencies were highest for the group who experienced adversity across multiple contexts and lowest for the low adversity group.
  • Girls and non-binary teens are more likely than boys to self-harm, and experience poorer mental health outcomes.
  • Irish adolescents, and those from two-parent households, reported better mental health outcomes than adolescents from other family structures or cultural backgrounds.

The research was conducted by Dr Charlotte Silke, Dr Bernadine Brady, Dr Caroline Heary and colleagues from the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre and School of Psychology at University of Galway. It was funded by the Health Research Board and undertaken in collaboration with Planet Youth, the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention and the National Suicide Research Foundation.

Dr Charlotte Silke said:  "This research highlights an important link between youth adversity and mental health. Consistently, across each year, we found that experiencing adversity, in any setting - whether that's at home or at school - increases risk of self-harm and poor mental health, and youth who experience adversity across multiple contexts, for example, at home and at school, are at substantial risk. To fully understand the impact of adversity on young people we need to look at the contexts in which they are experiencing adversity."

Dr Bernadine Brady said: “From a policy perspective, the link between adversity and poor mental health highlighted in this study underlines the need for prevention and early intervention services and supports to reduce adversity for children, young people and families. Key messages for young people, parents or guardians and schools are that factors such as sleep, physical activity, support from parents and friends and feeling safe at school are associated with better youth mental health.”


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