Public Release: 

Older people who self-harm at highest risk of suicide, finds study

'Self-harm not just a problem in young people'

University of Manchester

People over 65 who harm themselves are more likely to die by suicide than other age groups according to new research published in the Lancet Psychiatry by University of Manchester and Keele University academics.

Funded by the NIHR Greater Manchester Patient Safety Translational Research Centre, the study analysed patient records using the Clinical Practice Research Datalink (CPRD) and found that 4,124 patients harmed themselves between 2001 and 2014, mostly by taking overdoses of medication.

It showed that people over 65 who self-harm are 20 times more likely to die an unnatural death and 145 times more likely to die by suicide than people of the same age who had not self-harmed.

The study also found that only 12% of older patients who self-harmed had a record of being referred to a mental health service for aftercare. National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines suggest that the involvement of mental health specialists is important because older people who self-harm may have higher suicidal intent than younger people.

Physical health problems were more common in older patients who had harmed themselves compared to those who had not.

Following a self-harm episode, over one in ten of those aged 65 and over were prescribed tricyclic antidepressants which can be toxic when taken in overdose.

Dr Cathy Morgan, who led the study and analysed the data said: "With the aging population rising and a lack of research in this age group, this study - - the first of its kind conducted in primary care - has gone some way in highlighting the risks of self-harm in older people.

"This study emphasises the need for early intervention, careful alternative prescribing and better support for older people who may see their GP following an episode of self-harm or for other health problems."

Professor Nav Kapur, one of the authors of the paper who chaired the NICE guidelines for self-harm said: "We sometimes think of self-harm as a problem in younger people and of course it is. But it effects older adults too and the concerning issue is the link with increased risk of suicide.

"Older people might be particularly vulnerable as they are uniquely exposed to issues such as bereavement, isolation and physical as well as mental illness.

"They also might fear the consequences of becoming a burden to their family or friends, or not being able to function from day to day."

He added: "We hope our study will alert clinicians, service planners, and policy makers to the need to implement preventative measures for this potentially vulnerable group of people. Referral and management of mental health conditions are likely to be key"

Professor Carolyn Chew-Graham, from Keele University one of the research team and a practising GP said: "Since drug ingestion is one of the main methods of self-harm, we highlight the need to consider less toxic medication in older adults for the management of both mental illness and pain related conditions.

"We also recommend maintaining frequent medication reviews following self-harm."

"GPs are after all in a unique position to intervene as older patients come to the surgery more frequently than younger adults."



This study was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Greater Manchester Patient Safety Translational Research Centre (PSTRC), grant number PSTRC-20160-03. The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the National Health Service (NHS), the NIHR, or the Department of Health and Social Care.

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR): improving the health and wealth of the nation through research. Established by the Department of Health and Social Care, the NIHR:

  • funds high quality research to improve health
  • trains and supports health researchers
  • provides world-class research facilities
  • works with the life sciences industry and charities to benefit all
  • involves patients and the public at every step

For further information, visit the NIHR website.

This work uses data provided by patients and collected by the NHS as part of their care and support and would not have been possible without access to this data. The NIHR recognises and values the role of patient data, securely accessed and stored, both in underpinning and leading to improvements in research and care.

About The University of Manchester

The University of Manchester, a member of the prestigious Russell Group, is the UK's largest single-site university with more than 40,000 students - including more than 10,000 from overseas.It is consistently ranked among the world's elite for graduate employability.

The University is also one of the country's major research institutions, rated fifth in the UK in terms of 'research power' (REF 2014). World-class research is carried out across a diverse range of fields including cancer, advanced materials, global inequalities, energy and industrial biotechnology.

No fewer than 25 Nobel laureates have either worked or studied here.

It is the only UK university to have social responsibility among its core strategic objectives, with staff and students alike dedicated to making a positive difference in communities around the world.

Manchester is ranked 29th in the world in the QS World University Rankings 2018 and 6th in the UK.

Visit for further information.
Facts and figures:
Research Beacons:
News and media contacts:

About Keele University:

Keele was recently awarded Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework
Keele is ranked No.1 in England for Course Satisfaction (Guardian University Guide 2018)
97% of the University's research was deemed to be world-leading, or of international importance, in the latest Research Excellence Framework

Professor Kapur and Professor Carolyn Chew-Graham are available for comment

An embargoed copy of the paper 'Self-harm in a primary care cohort of older people: incidence, clinical management and risk of suicide and other causes of death' is available

For media enquiries contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health
University of Manchester
0161 275 2111
07717 881567

For Keele University Enquries contact:

Sam Lesniak
PR & Communications Manager
01782 733857
07825 609437

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.