Half of all teenagers say they will deliberately harm themselves at least once, and psychologists are struggling to pinpoint why.
A Victoria University team is about to start a four-year study of more than 1000 Wellington secondary school pupils after previous research showed 49.7 per cent of teenagers in the capital reported hurting themselves on purpose at least once before they turned 18.
Lead researcher Marc Wilson, an associate psychology professor, said: "To categorise it simply as attention-seeking is brutally unfair, and it stops people from seeking help.
"One of the reasons people find it hard to believe it is so common is because it is so against our instincts for survival.
"But it is happening, and [the numbers] are quite high – higher than you might expect in other parts of the world."
The new study follows an anonymous self-harm survey by the university in 2010, involving more than 1200 pupils, aged between 16 and 18, from 10 Wellington high schools.
Among the 49.7 per cent who said they harmed themselves deliberately, about 20 per cent said they did it regularly.
This included injuries that caused soft-tissue damage, such as cutting, burning, scratching themselves with nails or implements, sticking pins into themselves, rubbing sandpaper or glass on to their skin, or breaking their own bones.
It did not include ingesting poisonous or toxic substances.
Dr Wilson said the figures challenged the stereotype that self-harm was a "cry for help". It was more likely to be a misguided coping mechanism.
"They are trying to avoid overwhelming negative feelings and emotions; they're doing it to punish themselves or because they feel unworthy."
Bullying had been identified as a risk factor.
Adolescents were most likely to begin self-injury between the ages of 12 and 14, but little was known about why, or what made some teenagers dependent on it, he said.
Youthline national spokesman Stephen Bell said about 200 young people called to seek help with self-harm each month.
"It's not necessarily a continuum to something worse like suicide ... but there is a lot of shame involved."
Taita College principal John Murdoch said it was clear a huge number of vulnerable young people were struggling to cope.
He welcomed another study, but said focus needed to be placed on social welfare, police, and health agencies working together to solve the problems.
"Let's just have a look at the drivers that are behind all this ... We need to have a constructive approach."
The study is funded by $1.12 million from the Health Research Council.
The researchers are approaching every school in the Wellington region to ask for participants.
Those taking part will be asked questions about happiness, bullying, relationships, and identity. Researchers will also interview guidance counsellors, teachers, parents and pupils to find possible causes and links with depression, socio-economic status and gender.
They will then develop resources for each of these groups, including graphic novels targeting adolescents and professional development for counsellors.
THE HURT WITHIN
The Dominion Post asked Wellington teenagers three questions: Why is your age group so susceptible to self-harm? Do you know anyone who hurts themself intentionally? How do you cope if you've had a rough day?
Johnny Takaloa, 14, Porirua, Wellington College
Believes young people hurt themselves when they're stressed or have problems at home. He doesn't know anyone who deliberately harms themselves. When he's stressed out, he either talks to his parents or goes for a run.
Hannah McKay, 17, Khandallah, St Mary's College
Thinks some people harm themselves when they're not feeling good about themselves. "Physical pain can feel better than emotional pain." Some of her friends have cut themselves deliberately. "I don't self-harm. I talk to my friends and have a bit of a cry if necessary."
Francesca Crawford, 17, Hataitai, St Mary's College
Believes people deliberately hurt themselves because it's a release from emotional pain. She also thinks it is attention-seeking behaviour. She knows people who have cut and scratched themselves deliberately. If she's had a tough day, she will sometimes talk to parents or friends, but other times she goes "home into my room and I have a cry and listen to some music".
Anthony Clements, 17, Churton Park, Natcoll
Thinks some young people hurt themselves because their lives are not going well - maybe they have recently broken up with their girlfriend or have a poor relationship with their parents. He knows people who have cut themselves. When he's had a rough day, he goes home and plays video games or hangs out with friends.
Rory Crabbe, 17, Newlands, Newlands College
Believes people hurt themselves when they are depressed and their relationships with their parents are not good. "[Their] parents don't necessarily like them, blame them for things and don't trust them." When he's had a rough day, he plays video games, talks to friends on the phone or goes to bed early - "something to keep me preoccupied".
WHAT TO DO
Parents who find that their child is harming him or herself shouldn't freak out, throw away every sharp object in the house, or dismiss it as acting out or attention-seeking, Dr Wilson says. "They should take it seriously without overdramatising it and talk to the young person about the reasons. Talking about it won't usually make things worse because, after all, they probably think about it a lot."
While a high number of teenagers harmed themselves once or twice, many never did it again. People who reported self-injury also reported feeling more depressed or anxious, had more trouble describing and understanding their own feelings, and were bullied. They were more likely to be negatively perfectionist, because they were trying to meet the expectations of others.
Youthline: 0800 37 66 33.
- The Dominion Post