The truth of our youth

Why do some young people deliberately hurt themselves, but others never do? Why do some go on to chronically engage in self-injury, while others stop?

Teen sitting on his bed looking overwhelmed

These are questions that Victoria’s Youth Wellbeing Study has been investigating over the past five years, with support from the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

Addressing them has involved a longitudinal survey of thousands of young New Zealanders, focus hui with young people and their whanau, interviews and discussions with school guidance counsellors and collaborating with groups of young people to develop graphic novels themed around selfinjury and help-seeking.

“Just under a third of the participants reported hurting themselves by the end of the study, and the research confirmed that young people hurt themselves for a range of reasons. Managing emotions was the most common function of self-injury, followed by self-punishment and the desire to feel something,” says lead researcher Professor Marc Wilson.

The longitudinal survey has been particularly important in investigating the way that self-injury develops over time. As expected, the findings show young people who are less well-equipped to understand and manage their emotions are more likely to manage their emotions through self-injury.

“More importantly, young people’s emotion regulation skills predicted future self-injury, and self-injury impaired future emotion regulation,” says Marc. “Essentially, because selfinjury provided relief for some young people, they may have come to rely on it rather than seeking out safer ways to manage their emotions.”

The research team plans to explore the link between non-suicidal selfinjury and suicide, and to develop an emotion regulation training programme for young people.