One in seven students (roughly 14%) in Belgium starts self-harming during their time as students, a study carried out by the KU Leuven university showed.
About half of students who self-harm do so frequently, with the first year at university being a particularly high-risk period for starting to self-harm. It is equally common among boys and girls.
"It is a great misunderstanding that self-harm is a way of attracting attention. Students who injure themselves do not want to show it off. Self-injury is still a big taboo," said Glenn Kiekens, researcher at the KU Leuven.
"It is a signal that things are difficult and that it is time to start talking," he added. "Students need to realise that they are not alone and that help is definitely available."
The answer to why a student starts to self-harm is complex and multi-faceted, says Kiekens. "It is not often possible to give one reason but it is a confluence of factors."
Students with a so-called 'emotional backpack' often have more difficulties coping with the challenges of the university period, the researchers say. "Students who have certain traumas from the past, stress or mental problems: it can all contribute to starting self-harm."
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In order to find out which students are at risk, the researchers followed 4,565 Flemish students over a longer period and developed a model to be able to predict who is at risk of injuring themselves, in order to be able to intervene more quickly.
At KU Leuven, all first-year students receive an online questionnaire at the start of the academic year that assesses their mental health, which can also be used to estimate the risk of a student starting to self-harm.
The test tries to assess the students' mental state through a mathematical model, which the university hopes will make it possible to intervene more quickly in the future and to start providing assistance.
At the same time, another study uses a smartphone app to predict when young adults might turn to self-harm by asking them how they are feeling at that moment, at regular intervals throughout the day. The goal is to be able to intervene more quickly in the future.
"There is often less than 30 minutes between thinking of injuring oneself and actually doing so. That is very fast," said Kiekens.
"So it is vital to be able to intervene quickly when someone's indicator switches from green to orange in everyday life. Because once it goes to red, it's too late," he added.
However, he stressed, a smartphone can never replace the psychologist, even if it can intervene when necessary.
That is why, according to Kiekens, it would be practical to use that same smartphone to suggest alternatives to regulate emotions, such as running or breathing exercises. Or by motivating someone to seek help.
It is important to start seeking professional help as soon as possible, especially if the behaviour is frequent, as self-harm increases the risk of a later suicide attempt.
Self-harming can be a vicious circle that traps young people, and they need all the help they can get to escape from it, says Kiekens.
He stressed that when you encounter someone who self-harms, it is important not to judge, but to listen to what they tell you and express concern.
"Do not immediately ask the victim to stop self-harming. It is often the only remaining strategy to deal with psychological pain," Kiekens said. "Ask if there is anything you can do and encourage the person to seek professional help."
If you have further questions about self-harm, visit the website of the Foundation for Self-Harm.
If you have been having suicidal thoughts, or are worried about someone else, contact one of the help organisations listed here.