of individuals presenting to an Oxfordshire hospital suggests that
an increasing number of armed forces personnel are self-harming.
Their self-harm appears to be in response to relationship and
employment problems – with alcohol playing a major role in most
Little is known about self-harm in the armed
forces. It is important to know more because self-harm, as well as
indicating distress, is generally linked with risk of
suicide. However, the research found that armed forces
personnel were less likely to have self-harmed before and their
acts involved lower suicide intent than other self-harm
Researchers investigated all armed forces
personnel who attended a hospital in Oxford after self-harming
between 1989 and 2003 – 166 in total. These individuals were
matched with civilians who had also presented to the hospital
following self-harm to provide a comparison or control group. The
findings are published in the March issue of the British Journal of
The number of service personnel presenting to
the hospital increased substantially during the 15-year study
period, with an increase of 80% between 1989-1993 and 1994-1998.
There was a further 41% increase between 1994-1998 and
Three-quarters of the service personnel were
male. However, this is lower than the proportion of males in the
Army and RAF (94.3% in 1990 and 91.4% in 2003). Therefore, the risk
of self-harm in female personnel is much higher. The personnel who
self-harmed were mainly young. Two-thirds were under 25-years-old.
Women in particular were young, with nearly three-quarters aged
between 16 and 24-years-old.
The most common method of self-harm was
overdosing on painkillers, tranquillisers, sedatives or
antidepressants. Self-injury, including cutting, was less common.
Alcohol played a significant role in many of the cases of self-harm
– particularly for the female personnel. Two-thirds of personnel
had been drinking in the six hours before they self-harmed.
The armed forces personnel said they were
facing a number of problems. Almost two-thirds had relationship
problems with a partner. More than two-fifths (44%) said they had
problems with their job, such as finding it stressful, boring or
repetitive. A substantial majority (17%) wanted to leave the
service, and more than one in ten were facing disciplinary
problems. A quarter of personnel also said they had problems with
The researchers found some clear differences
between the armed forces group and the control group. Very few of
the armed forces personnel who self-harmed had a history of
psychiatric problems, compared to the control group. In addition,
the service personnel were less likely to have self-harmed before
and were less likely to have high suicide intent.
Writing in the British Journal of
Psychiatry, the authors of the study concluded: “Self-harm by
armed forces personnel may often be a response to interpersonal and
employment problems complicated by alcohol misuse, with relatively
low suicide intent.”
They believe strategies aimed at reducing
heavy drinking within the armed forces could help to prevent cases
of self-harm in future.