Wider awareness of schoolgirl self-harm needed: researcher

More awareness is needed about undiagnosed depression and self-injury problems among adolescent females at New Zealand secondary schools.

That is the view of University of Otago psychology researcher Eve Hermansson-Webb, whose doctoral research has highlighted a ''pervasive problem within New Zealand secondary schools'' of non-suicidal self-injury among adolescent females.

Dr Hermansson-Webb graduated from Otago University last weekend with a psychology PhD focusing on aspects of non-suicidal self-injury, and also gained a postgraduate diploma in clinical psychology.

She undertook questionnaire-linked research involving 160 14-year-old female school pupils at two secondary schools, one in the North Island and the other in the South Island.

And 118 school guidance counsellors throughout the country also participated in another survey.

The self-injuries she was investigating were generally of a superficial nature or caused ''mild to moderate tissue damage''.

She found that of the 160 pupils, 12.5% (20) had injured themselves, often by cutting or burning, often on arms, legs or stomach. And 20% of the overall group were experiencing depression.

Guidance counsellors were well aware of issues involving adolescent self-injury of this kind. All had encountered it and they were doing a ''great job'' of supporting affected pupils, she said.

But the counsellors had estimated its prevalence at between 5% and 10%, which was significantly below the 12.5% level found in her survey.

Some cases could be slipping ''through the cracks'' and not being detected.

Wider awareness of the problems, among parents and teachers, would also be helpful in ''picking up'' other cases, to ensure that any other affected pupils were also getting support.

She emphasised there was no need for ''alarm'' about the situation, but self-injury was an indication of underlying distress and, in some cases, was a maladaptive ''coping response to stressful situations''. She advised pupils who had injured themselves to talk to a trusted adult, including a parent, teacher or school guidance counsellor. A general practitioner could also provide further advice.

Dr Hermansson-Webb's PhD topic was '' `With Friends Like These ...': The Social Contagion of Non Suicidal Self-Injury Among Adolescent Females''.

Having a group of close friends was generally protective against the possibility of self-injury, but there was also evidence of a ''clustering'' of self-injury and depression among some friends, she said.

Dr Marc Wilson, at the Victoria University of Wellington psychology department, is leading a major study, funded by the Health Research Council, into such injuries.

Dr Wilson has said that, in most cases, such self-injury was not a suicide attempt or a precursor to suicide.

The injuries were ''a way of dealing with overwhelming negative thoughts and emotions'', he said.


Where to get help

Lifeline: 0800-543-354
Depression Helpline (8am-midnight): 0800-111-757
Healthline: 0800-611-116.
Samaritans: 0800-211-211/(04) 473-9739
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508-828-865
Youthline: 0800-376-633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz
What's Up (for 5-18 year olds; 1pm-11pm): 0800-942-8787
Kidsline (for children 14 and under; 4pm-6pm weekdays): 0800-543-754
If it is an emergency, call 111