People who self-harm are three times more likely to die prematurely than those in the general population, often because of poor health, a new study finds.
Researchers followed 30 000 people in the United Kingdom who were treated at emergency departments for self-injury or self-poisoning between 2000 and 2007. About 6% (more than 1 800) died during the median six-year follow-up.
Death from both natural and external causes (suicide, accidental poisoning and other accidents) was much higher among these patients than among the general population, equating to an average of at least 30 years of life lost by each individual.
What the study found
Accidental poisoning and suicide were the most common causes of premature death. Deaths from natural causes, however, were two to 7.5 times higher than expected among the self-harm patients. The leading causes of these natural deaths were diseases of the digestive (largely alcohol-related) and circulatory systems, and mental and behavioural disorders, 87% of which were caused by substance abuse.
The researchers also found that being poor greatly increased the risk of early death from natural causes (but not external causes) among self-harm patients. Examples of self-harm include cutting, burning or scratching.
The study was published online in the journal The Lancet.
"Our study confirms that the increase in premature death among people who self-harm is not limited to suicide or other external causes, but includes dying prematurely from a wide variety of natural causes, such as diseases of the circulatory and digestive systems, which accounted for a third of deaths in our study," study leader Keith Hawton, from the University of Oxford Center for Suicide Research, said.
"Our findings have significant public health implications, and emphasise the importance of assessing physical health as well as psychosocial problems as part of standard checks when individuals present with self-harm," he noted.
While the study showed an association between self-harm and premature death, it did not prove a cause-and-effect link.
Helping teens who self-harm
The Royal College of Psychiatrists in the United Kingdom has more about self-harm.
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