Worldwide, suicide is the most prevalent cause of death in female teenagers, and the third most common cause of death in male adolescents, after road traffic accidents and violence. In a study published in The Lancet, researchers examine existing research in order to look at the associations between self-harm and suicide in young people.

According to official estimates 164,000 people commit suicide each year, but Professor Keith Hawton, Dr Kate Saunders of the University of Oxford’s Center for Suicide Research, and Professor Rory O’Connor of University Stirling’s Suicidal Behavior Research Laboratory, UK, say that this figure is likely to be significantly more.

They highlight that official classifications often hide deaths from suicide to protect families, especially in places where self-inflicted deaths are still considered a criminal act.

Professor Hawton explained:

“Although suicide is uncommon in adolescents compared with non-fatal self-harm, it is always a tragic outcome. Despite the fact that around 10% of adolescents report having self-harmed, the reasons why they do it and why some – but not others – go on to take their own life are still very poorly understood.

Further research in this area is urgently required if we are to make any headway in reducing the number of young people who either cause themselves significant harm or take their own lives.”

Professor O’Connor said:

“To prevent adolescent suicide and self-harm, it is also important that we better understand why some young people who have thoughts of suicide do not act on these thoughts – whereas others sadly do and in too many cases die by suicide.”

According to some studies, social networking sites may influence adolescents who are experiencing suicidal thoughts, but Hawton and his team explain that these types of sites can also play a positive role: “The challenge is in ensuring that new media provide support for vulnerable young people rather than helping or encouraging self-destructive behaviors.”

They state that more research is required in order to help clinicians understand more about the reasons for adolescent self-harming and suicide. Furthermore, effective interventions urgently need to be developed.

Professor Hawton and his team concluded:

“The identification of successful prevention initiatives aimed at young people and those at especially high risk, and the establishment of effective treatments for those who self-harm, are paramount needs.”

Written by Grace Rattue