Calls for more mental health support after research finds children as young as 11 are self-harming

Picture: Getty Images
Picture: Getty Images 

Researchers are calling for earlier mental health interventions for primary school-aged children, as a new study uncovers kids as young as 11 are self-harming. 

The University of Melbourne and Murdoch Children's Research Institute study assessed more than 1,200 children aged between eight-nine and 11-12 years, using data from MCRI's Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study, who were randomly selected from 43 schools across Melbourne.

They found that three per cent of year six students had self-harmed, the majority (64 per cent) of which were girls. For the study, self-harm included cutting/burning, self-poisoning, self-battering, non-recreational risk-taking or other self-harms.

Published in journal PLOS ONE, the study also identified depression and anxiety, bullying and alcohol consumption among grade three to five students were key predictors of the behaviour once the children entered grade six. 

For students aged 11-12 years, predictors of future self-harm were having few friends, anti-social behaviour, poor emotional control and delayed puberty,

Children who said they had few friends were seven times more likely, and those who had been bullied 24 times as likely, to have self-harmed by age 12. 

Of those who had self-harmed, they were seven times more likely to experience depressive symptoms and five times as likely to report anxiety. 

According to lead researcher Dr Rohan Borschmann, the findings indicated that among primary school-aged children, mental health, puberty and peer relationships had strong links to self-harm.

This, he said, made earlier interventions an important consideration given the challenges faced during the transition from childhood to adolescence. 


"Previous studies have focused specifically on children who have sought treatment for mental health problems, or focused on adolescents and young people," Dr Borschmann said.

"Ours is the first study to estimate the prevalence of self-harm among primary school-aged children in the general community, and it sheds light on the impact of peer relationship (including bullying), mental health problems, and puberty on children."

Senior author Professor George Patton agreed for the need for earlier interventions being rolled out in primary schools.

"These days many high schools participate in mental health and resilience programs, but our research shows that prevention strategies are needed much earlier," Professor Patton said.

"Promoting and nurturing better relationships with other students is also particularly important."

While it's difficult to estimate the number of young Australians who self-harm, it's understood that six to eight per cent of people aged 15-24 self-harm in any 12 month period. 

Reports from the ABC also suggest the number of children and young adolescents presenting to hospital emergency departments with self-inflicted injuries was also increasing. According to data from Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) cited by the broadcaster, the number of children presenting with self-harm injuries in August was up 33 per cent from the year before.

Signs a child may be self-harming include changes in sleeping or eating patterns, loss of interest in friends or activities, having their arms, legs or torso covered, hiding objects such as razors or lighters and showing physical injuries they are unable or reluctant to explain. 

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.