An ‘epidemic’ of self-harm: Why are more Canadian youth hurting themselves?

WATCH ABOVE: Why are more Canadian youth hurting themselves? Crystal Goomansingh reports. 

TORONTO – More Canadian teens than ever are purposely hurting themselves so badly they need to be hospitalized.

A new report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information finds almost 2,500 youth were hospitalized for intentional self-harm last year – up from 1,300 in 2009-10.

Most of them are young girls. And most of them are abusing or misusing prescription drugs.

“These are intentional cases, so young people are doing this on purpose for various reasons. We don’t know if it’s an attempt on their lives but certainly it’s an intentional behaviour,” Juliana Wu, a manager at the Canadian Institute for Health Information, said in an interview Tuesday.

“We do see that the number of cases as a result of drug misuse is going up quite dramatically.”

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The number of young girls hospitalized due to self-harm has grown by more than 110 per cent since 2009-2010, from 78 to 164 per 100,000. The rate among boys is far lower at 32 per 100,000.

“Over the last three to five years there’s been a surge that, at least to us care providers, almost feels like an epidemic of self-harming,” Kathleen Pajer, the chief of the department of psychiatry at IWK Health Centre in Ottawa, said in an interview Tuesday.

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The report says the most common method for youth self-harm – more than 1,700 of the 2,037 hospitalizations among girls, and 342 of the 419 among boys – is poisoning, either through the use of narcotics, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, chemicals or alcohol.

The second most common, at just eight per cent, was the use of a sharp object.

The data was gathered from hospital admission records across Canada. Wu admits the data is incomplete because it doesn’t capture the number of people who hurt themselves on purpose but didn’t go to the hospital.

That omission could leave out boys who self-harm, she said. Males are less likely to go to the hospital than girls in general, which could contribute to the number of hospitalized boys being far lower than girls.

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Pajer said the type of person who self-harms now compared to 20 years ago has changed. She said she used to expect someone with severe mental health issues such as depression or psychosis. But it’s become far more common.

“More and more of the kids don’t have what we might call a severe mental illness or a severe substance use disorder but instead are really experiencing sort of a crisis of meaning in their lives or an inability to handle their negative emotions except by cutting,” Pajer said.

“My point is that a lot of these kids don’t fit into one of our neat diagnostic categories.”

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She suggested kids need to be taught at an early age to deal with and learn from negative emotions.

And only a small subset of the youth who self-harm go on to kill themselves or self-harm as adults, she said.

The report says 140 boys aged 15 to 19 killed themselves in 2011. Fifty-eight girls in the same age group killed themselves that year.

Over 3,400 youth were admitted to an Ontario emergency department in 2013-2014 as a result of self-harm, according to the report.

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“I think what we have seen at the provincial level is that the trend is very similar. So we’re seeing a pretty dramatic increase in the number of self-harm cases,” Wu said.  “These young people are struggling and probably have been struggling for a while now before these kinds of admissions happen. So I think it’s really for us to pay attention to the young people in our lives and see what we can do for them.”

– With files from Crystal Goomansingh 

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