Self-harm presentations rise for teen girls since the pandemic

24 May 2022
Pandemic trends

The number of teenage girls who presented to NSW Emergency Departments (ED) for self-harm or suicidal ideation has dramatically escalated during the pandemic, following a steady increase over the past decade.

A new study has investigated whether the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened trends in self-harm presentations in children and young people, which have increased globally over the last 10 years.

Pre-COVID, self-harm or suicidal ideation presentations by young people in NSW increased by 8.4 per cent per year. However, since COVID this figure has accelerated to 19.2 per cent.

This general rise among young people is predominantly driven by increased presentations by females aged 13–17 years. In 2021, 466 females per 10,000 in that age group presented to ED compared to 290 females per 10,000 in 2019. Presentations in males between 10-24 years did not increase during the pandemic.

Dr Iain Perkes

The study also found the rates increased in socio-economically advantaged areas and were strongly linked to school semesters.

A collaborative research team worked to determine these trends, including Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network (SCHN) researchers Carla Trudgett, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Dr Iain Perkes, Senior Lecturer in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Dr Katherine Knight, Director of Mental Health, and A/Prof Fenton O'Leary, Emergency Physician at The Children's Hospital at Westmead, along with John Uesi, Fred Wu, Dr Nancy Jong, Dr Michael Bowden and Dr Grant Sara from NSW Ministry of Health.

This collaboration produced a time series analysis comparing annualised growth of ED self-harm or suicidal ideation presentations by people aged 10–24 years in NSW from January 2015 to June 2021.

“This clinically driven research confirmed our experience of a major surge in presentations relative to COVID. The effects of gender and socioeconomics, however, were unexpected and so help us to re-frame our approach,” Dr Perkes said.

Since the onset of the pandemic, SCHN has implemented additional occupational therapy, art therapy and music therapy sessions to assist patients requiring acute mental health support.

Nursing, medical and allied health teams have also been using a range of therapeutic interventions to ensure patients and their families are receiving the best support possible.

The study, “Growth in emergency department self-harm or suicidal ideation presentations in young people: Comparing trends before and since the COVID-19 first wave in NSW”, has been published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.

Research to unravel protective and risk factors, including gender and socioeconomics, relative to self-harm and suicidal ideation presentations in children and young people in NSW since COVID-19 have not yet been published.

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