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Suicidal thoughts among Scotland's youth could be higher than reported

A reliance on self-reporting and stigma around mental health means figures are likely to be higher than studies suggest

With a swelling conversation around raising awareness of and de-stigmatising mental health – especially for young adults – it’s more important than ever to publish the hard facts on just how many people are living with mental health issues.

This week, a study led by researchers at the University of Glasgow found that one in nine young people in Scotland have attempted suicide, with a further 16 percent of young people aged between 18 and 34 having self-harmed at some stage in their lives.

In the first-of-its-kind study, published on open access journal BJPsych Open, 3,508 people across Scotland aged 18-34 were surveyed on the prevalence of self-harm and suicidal attempts.

Women were 1.6 times more likely to report a suicide attempt, the study found, and engaged in self-harm and attempted suicide on average two years younger age than men.

It also drew links between early onset and frequency of self-harming and attempts at suicide.

Prof Rory O’Connor, director of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory at the University’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing said the figures were “stark”.

“Suicide attempts and non-suicidal self-harm are major public health concerns that affect large numbers of young people,” he said. “Until now, there have been few studies that estimated how common these thoughts and behaviours were in young adults in the country.”

But with the stigma surrounding mental health in young people (a 2016 joint study by the NHS and YMCA found that 70 per cent of young people who experience mental health issues were unlikely to report them because of stigma), alongside the University of Glasgow’s reliance on self-reporting techniques to gather data for the study, are these figures just the tip of the iceberg?

The study itself recognises that suicidal history was assessed via self-report, and noted that “given the evidence some people consistently report their self-harm/suicidal history, reliance on self-report may lead to the underreporting of suicide attempts.”

The figures may be stark, but when it comes to reporting suicide and self-harm, it’s clear that one in nine young Scots may just be the start. Whether you’re concerned about your own mental health or that of a loved one, there’s a list of resources and helplines here.

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