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Self-injury in Australia: a community survey

Graham Martin, Sarah V Swannell, Philip L Hazell, James E Harrison and Anne W Taylor
Med J Aust 2010; 193 (9): 506-510.

Summary

Objective: To understand self-injury and its correlates in the Australian population.

Design, participants and setting: Cross-sectional survey, using computer-assisted telephone interview, of a representative sample of 12 006 Australians from randomly selected households.

Main outcome measures: Data on demographics, self-injury, psychiatric morbidity, substance use, suicidality, disclosure and help-seeking.

Results: In the 4 weeks before the survey, 1.1% of the sample self-injured. For females, self-injury peaked in 15–24-year-olds; for males, it peaked in 10–19-year-olds. The youngest self-injurers were nine boys and three girls in the 10–14-year age group, and the oldest were one female and one male in the 75–84-year age group. Mean age of onset was 17 years, but the oldest age of onset was 44 years for males and 60 years for females. No statistically significant differences existed between those who did and did not self-injure on sex, socioeconomic status or Indigenous status. Most common self-injury method was cutting; most common motivation was to manage emotions. Frequency of self-injury during the 4-week period ranged from 1 to 50 instances (mean, 7). Self-injurers were significantly more psychologically distressed, and also more likely to use substances. Adults who self-injured were more likely to have received a psychiatric diagnosis. Self-injurers were more likely to have experienced recent suicidal ideation (OR, 11.56; 95% CI, 8.14–16.41), and have ever attempted suicide (OR, 8.51; 95% CI, 5.70–12.69). Most respondents told someone about their self-injury but fewer than half sought help.

Conclusion: The prevalence of self-injury in Australia in the 4 weeks before the survey was substantial and self-injury may begin at older ages than previously reported. Self-injurers are more likely to have mental health problems and are at higher risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviour than non-self-injurers, and many self-injurers do not seek help.

  • Graham Martin1
  • Sarah V Swannell1
  • Philip L Hazell2,3
  • James E Harrison4
  • Anne W Taylor5,6

  • 1 Discipline of Psychiatry, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD.
  • 2 Discipline of Psychiatry, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW.
  • 3 Thomas Walker Hospital (Rivendell), Sydney South West Area Health Service, Sydney, NSW.
  • 4 Flinders University, Adelaide, SA.
  • 5 SA Health, Adelaide, SA.
  • 6 School of Medicine, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA.

Correspondence: g.martin@uq.edu.au

Acknowledgements: 

We are grateful for funding from the Australian Government that enabled us to reach the planned sample size.

Competing interests:

Graham Martin and Sarah Swannell received a grant for this project from the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing National Suicide Prevention Strategy. This included reimbursement of travel and accommodation expenses for training professional interviewers. James Harrison has received grants from the World Health Organization, including funding for travel; he has been employed by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare, which funds the Research Centre for Injury Studies to run the National Injury Surveillance program; he is a member of the International Classification of Diseases Revision Steering Committee and chairs the Australasian Mortality Data Interest Group. Anne Taylor has received grants from the Department of Health and Ageing.

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