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What makes young people turn to self-harm and suicide?

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Published on 10 December 2020

Preventing suicide
Preventing suicide

A team of researchers have received substantial funding to help them understand what makes young people turn to self-harm and suicide and look at ways to provide additional support to families, carers and practitioners.


The team are working to develop policy and practice guidelines for England in relation to self-harm and suicide and examine what role issues such as exam stress, bullying and internet use have on young people, alongside traditional factors such as social isolation, drink and substance misuse.

Adolescent death by suicide remains a global concern. In 2018 there were 7,438 deaths by suicide recorded of individuals aged 10 years and over – 137 of these were aged between 10 and 18-years-old and we have yet to fully see the impact on suicides during the during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A team of researchers, led by Dr Diane Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Sunderland, and Professor Dorothy Newbury Birch from Teesside University, have received £50,000 funding from the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) for the North East and North Cumbria (NENC) to carry out this work.

The project has been funded as part of the NIHR ARC NENC’s Open Funding Competition for 2020, alongside 30 other research projects. The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research and provides the people, facilities and technology that enables research to thrive. Find out more about the NIHR.

The money will be used to spearhead an 18-month intensive research project, in collaboration with regional public health teams, practitioners, Children North-East and Public Health England.

The aim is to develop a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding self-harm and suicide among young people and set out best-practice guidelines for working with young people who may be struggling.

Professor Newbury-Birch, is a Professor of Alcohol and Public Health within Teesside University’s School of Social Sciences, Humanities & Law and also leads the Coproducing Alcohol, Criminal Justice and Public Health (Team Alpha) theme of the Centre of Social Innovation at Teesside University.

She said: “This is a really important study as it will help us understand the issue with young people themselves who will help us shape the policy and practice guidelines.”

One of the key areas of the research will be looking at ways to better support children and families and help those who work directly with young people who attempt, or who are at risk of suicide.

As well as issues such as mental health, isolation, especially in light of the pandemic and substance misuse, the researchers will also examine what role factors such as bullying, exam pressures and the internet play on young people who are vulnerable.

Professor Newbury-Birch added: “We really need to look at this from a multi-disciplinary viewpoint to ensure that we can support young people through issues that affect their mental health in such a negative way.”

Dr Diane Simpson added: “Supporting young people’s mental health, particularly when there are concerns about self-harm and suicide, is such an important topic for professionals to understand and be able to respond to.”

The research is set to get underway in the spring of next year and will involve a review of national and regional data, as well as policies and strategies currently in place.

In addition, there will be a number of focus groups with young people, carers, policy makers and practitioners who are involved in services relating to self-harm and suicide. There will also be a national workshop to discuss the findings and develop recommendations for practice and policy.

Professor Eileen Kaner, Director of the NIHR ARC for the North East and North Cumbria, added: “Our annual Open Funding Competition allows us to support a diverse range of original and high-quality research projects that aim to improve health and social care both locally and nationally.

“We are very happy to fund this important piece of work which aims to make a real difference to the way professionals can support young people who are experiencing difficulties, not just in our area but right across the country.”

The NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) for the North East and North Cumbria (NENC) is a partnership that brings together six regional universities, the NHS, health and social care providers, local authorities, the voluntary sector, community groups, members of the public and others. Its vision is to deliver ‘better, fairer health and care at all ages and in all places’.

Find out more about the NIHR ARC North East and North Cumbria