Peer influences on self-harm in young people

18 May 2021, 12.30 PM - 18 May 2021, 1.30 PM

Dr Alexandra Pitman, Associate Professor, University College London.

via Zoom (invite instructions below)


Suicidal behaviour is influenced by a range of genetic and environmental factors, including the suicidal behaviour of others. Population studies provide evidence for a suicide suggestion effect after exposure to media reporting of suicide, and after the suicides or suicide attempts of relatives and peers. However, despite qualitative perspectives describing suggestion effects after the suicide of a close contact, no study has investigated the impact of exposure to self-harm or suicidal behaviour using cognitive testing. We aimed to test the hypothesis that exposure to others’ self-harm influences own likelihood of self-harm, and that individual suggestibility influences the degree to which exposure to others’ self-harm affects likelihood of self-harm. We recruited UK-based adults aged 18-25 years via Twitter and research databases, restricting this to those with a history of self-harm within the last 5 years. We measured baseline suggestibility and socio-demographic and clinical variables, and elicited measures of likelihood of self-harm before and after a set of self-harm scenarios featuring individuals from the subject’s social network to simulate exposure to self-harm. Our main outcome was a change in perceived propensity to self-harm after exposure to another’s self-harm, measured as a point difference on a 9 point scale. Using paired t-tests we found evidence to support a suggestion effect in that participants’ self-rated likelihood of self-harm increased when comparing pre- and post-test measures of perceived likelihood of self-harm. Using linear regression, we found no evidence to support an association between suggestibility and change in likelihood of self-harm between baseline and after exposure to a self-harm vignette. Our findings suggest that self-harm suggestion effects were apparent across a sample of young adults with a history of self-harm, and not characteristic of those who were more suggestible.

Speaker bio

Dr Alexandra Pitman is an Associate Professor in Psychiatry in the UCL Division of Psychiatry and an Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust. Her clinical role is in the veterans’ mental health team for London and South East England, funded by NHS England.  Her research interests are in the epidemiology of suicide and self-harm, the impact of suicide loss, loneliness and social isolation, and in developing approaches to prevent suicide. She is funded by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to investigate mediators of suicide risk after suicide bereavement, and by the UCL Institute of Mental Health to investigate peer influences on self-harm. She co-leads, with Professor Sonia Johnson, the UKRI-funded Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health network. She is a Patron of the Support After Suicide Partnership.

Seminar chair

Dr Helen Bould


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