Are Young People Who Self-Harm More Likely To Commit Violent Crimes?

By Paul Gaita 01/10/19

A new study examined whether adolescents who self-harm have a higher risk of hurting others. 

a teen who is in therapy to deal with self-harm issues

New research has determined that a predilection for self-harm in adolescence and early adulthood may also foretell a risk for harming others. Data culled from a long-term study on twins from preschool age until their early 20s suggested that individuals who reported harming themselves were three times more likely to commit violent crimes than those that did not.

Negative experiences during childhood, including mistreatment and low self-control, appeared to increase the odds of a self-harmer becoming a "dual harmer," as the study labeled such individuals, as well as developing a dependency on alcohol and/or drugs.

"We know that some individuals who self-harm also inflict harm on others," said study author Leah Richmond-Rakerd of Duke University. "What has not been clear is whether there are early-life characteristics or experiences that increase the risk of violent offending among individuals who self-harm." 

The results of the study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, examined data compiled on more than 2,200 twins born in the United Kingdom between 1994 and 1995 who took part in the Environmental (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, which examined childhood behavior disorders in its subjects between the ages of five and 18.

Beginning at age 18, the E-Risk study asked participants to report any experience with self-harm since the age of 12 as well as violent behaviors and any criminal records accrued between the ages of 10 and 22. Additional childhood experiences, including family psychiatry, maltreatment and low self-control, were also reviewed for the study.

Of the 2,049 participants in the study, 13.4% met the criteria for self-harm, while 19.4% matched criteria for violent crime. Among the individuals who presented as dual harmers, there were higher incidents of low self-control and maltreatment; as US News and World Report noted, genetics and family history did not appear to impact the likelihood of self-harm or dual harm.

"Our study suggests that dual-harming adolescents have experienced self-control difficulties and been victims of violence from a young age," said Richmond-Rakerd. Other clinical characteristics exhibited by dual harmers included "higher lethality behaviors," such as hanging or drowning, and acts of self-aggression, such as hitting themselves with objects or banging their heads against a wall and aggression towards others. Self-harmers, by comparison, appeared to engage in lower-lethality methods like cutting.

Dual harmers also appeared to have a greater chance of exhibiting psychotic symptoms and meeting criteria for drug or alcohol dependency. As Richmond-Rakerd noted, early determination of the chance of dual harm behavior among self-harming young people through a "treatment-oriented, rather than punishment-oriented approach" could "guide interventions that prevent and reduce interpersonal violence."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.