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Study shows declining wellbeing and high rates of self-harm among teens

Young people who suffered adversity are substantially more at risk of self-harm, University of Galway study shows

New research shows high rates of self-harm among teenagers and a decline in their levels of wellbeing and mental health over recent years.

The study by academics at University of Galway found that young people who suffered adversity – such as bullying or parental conflict – were substantially more at risk of self-harm.

The findings are based on surveys of 15,000 transition year students in three counties – Galway, Mayo and Roscommon – who self-reported on a range of topics between 2018 and 2022.

The research focused on patterns of adversity which young people experience in the home, among their peers or at school to establish whether these are linked to mental health outcomes or self-harm behaviours.


Overall, it found that wellbeing and mental health among teens in the west of Ireland declined during the period surveyed, while depressive tendencies increased.

About 32 per cent of transition year students reported having self-harmed at some point in their lifetime. The proportion who self-harmed was lower among teens who had little likelihood/probability of experiencing adversity (13 per cent) and was higher among young people who experienced parental adversity (27 per cent) or adversity among their peers (37 per cent) or those who experience adversity in several ways (82 per cent).

Girls and non-binary teens were more likely to self-harm and experience poorer mental health outcomes compared with boys.

Irish adolescents and those from two-parent households reported better mental health outcomes than adolescents from other family structures or cultural backgrounds.

It found that factors like sleep, physical activity, support from parents, peers and schools are associated with better mental health outcomes.

“Key messages for young people, parents or guardians and schools are that factors such as sleep, physical activity, support from parents and friends and feeling safe at school are associated with better youth mental health,” she said.

The research was conducted by Dr Charlotte Silke, Dr Bernadine Brady, Dr Caroline Heary and colleagues from University of Galway’s Unesco Child and Family Research Centre and School of Psychology. It was funded by the Health Research Board and undertaken in collaboration with Planet Youth, the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention and the National Suicide Research Foundation.

Dr Silke said the research highlighted an important link between youth adversity and mental health.

“Consistently, across each year, we found that experiencing adversity, in any setting – whether that’s at home or at school – increases risk of self-harm and poor mental health, and youth who experience adversity across multiple contexts, for example, at home and at school, are at substantial risk,” she said. “To fully understand the impact of adversity on young people we need to look at the contexts in which they are experiencing adversity.”

Dr Brady said that, from a policy perspective, the findings underlined the need for prevention and early intervention services and supports to reduce adversity for children, young people and families.

The report, Adolescent Mental Health & Adversity, was based on data from Planet Youth surveys and questionnaires carried out every two years with secondary school students across the three counties. About 5,000 teenagers took part in the surveys in 2018, 2020 and 2022.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent