Abstract

BACKGROUND Deliberate self-harm (DSH) is common in adolescents in the United Kingdom and suicide has greatly increased in frequency in older male adolescents. There is, however, very little information about DSH in older children and young adolescents.

METHOD Analysis of data collected by the Oxford Monitoring System for Attempted Suicide between 1976 and 1993 for all cases of DSH in under 16-year-olds referred to the general hospital in Oxford.

RESULTS Seven hundred and fifty-five individuals were involved in 854 episodes of DSH. There were very few cases under 12 years of age but after that the behaviour increased greatly in frequency with each year of age, especially in girls. Eighty-five per cent were girls, the sex ratio being 5.7 girls to each boy. Most cases involved self-poisoning. During the final six years of the study period paracetamol was involved in 54.7% of overdoses, compared with 19.5% in 1976-1981. A minority of individuals had had previous psychiatric treatment. The most frequent problems were relationship difficulties with parents, followed by difficulties with friends, school and social isolation. Among those who reported previous episodes of DSH, in the majority of cases these had not come to medical attention. Repetition of self-harm occurred in 9.4% of cases within a year of an episode and 19.3% during the overall study period. There was some indication that repetition was most common in youngsters discharged from the Accident and Emergency Department without a psychiatric assessment.

CONCLUSIONS DSH in under 16-year-olds is not uncommon and there is evidence that it occurs far more frequently in the community than is reflected in general hospital figures. The problem of paracetamol self-poisoning in this age group needs to be addressed. A psychiatric assessment should be performed in all cases coming to the general hospital.