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New media must provide support for self-harming and suicidal young people, says Stirling researcher

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A review of research about self-harm and suicide in adolescents, carried out jointly by the Universities of Stirling and Oxford, highlights the dangers of new media and suggests the need for social networking sites to provide support for vulnerable young people. 

In the research, to be published in The Lancet, Professor Rory O’Connor of Stirling’s Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory and Professor Keith Hawton and Dr Kate Saunders, of Oxford’s Centre for Suicide Research, conclude that further study is necessary to ensure clinicians have a better understanding of adolescent self-harm and suicide.  The authors also identify the need for establishing successful non-pharmaceutical intervention strategies and effective prevention initiatives targeted at young people 

Of particular concern to the team is the role that new media play, with studies reporting that social networking sites can encourage suicide in young people experiencing suicidal thoughts. 

Stirling’s Professor O’Connor said, “The reasons for adolescent suicide and self-harm are multiple and complex.  To prevent their occurrence, it is important that we gain fuller understanding of why some young people who have thoughts of suicide do not act on these thoughts, whereas, sadly, others do and in too many cases die by suicide.

“The role of new media needn’t be a negative one; my colleagues and I see that the challenge is in ensuring that new media provide support for vulnerable young people, rather than helping or encouraging self-destructive behaviours.  For example, we should harness the internet and social media to help destigmatise mental health problems, to signpost people to sources of help and to promote help-seeking."

Globally, suicide is the most common cause of death in female adolescents, and the third most common cause of death in male adolescents (after road traffic accidents and violence).  Official estimates suggest that there are 164,000 self-inflicted deaths per year globally, but the research team points out that this is likely to be a gross underestimate, since official classifications may often hide deaths from suicide in order to protect families, especially in regions where suicide is still a criminal act.

Professor Hawton said: “Although suicide is uncommon in adolescents compared with non-fatal self-harm, it is always a tragic outcome.  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.”

The paper is the first in a Series of three papers about suicide.  The full paper can be accessed here

Information about the University of Stirling’s Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory here

Information about the University of Oxford Centre for Suicide Research here

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