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Early puberty is associated with an increased risk of self-harm in adolescent females but results for males are inconsistent. This may be due to the use of subjective measures of pubertal timing, which may be biased. There is also limited evidence for the persistence of pubertal timing effects beyond adolescence, particularly in males. The primary aim of the current study was therefore to examine the association between pubertal timing and self-harm in both sexes during adolescence and young adulthood, using an objective measure of pubertal timing (age at peak height velocity; aPHV). A secondary aim was to examine whether this association differs for self-harm with versus without suicidal intent.

The sample (n = 5,369, 47% male) was drawn from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), a prospective birth cohort study. Mixed effects growth curve models were used to measure age at peak height velocity. Lifetime history of self-harm was self-reported at age 16 and 21 years, and associated suicidal intent was examined at age 16 years. Associations were estimated using multivariable logistic regression adjusted for a range of confounders. Missing data were imputed using Multiple Imputation by Chained Equations.

Later aPHV was associated with a reduced risk of self-harm at 16 years in both sexes (females: adjusted per-year increase in aPHV OR 0.85; 95% CI 0.75, 0.96; males: OR 0.72; 95% CI 0.59, 0.88). Associations were similar for self-harm with and without suicidal intent. There was some evidence of an association by age 21 years in females (adjusted per-year increase in aPHV OR 0.91; 95% CI 0.80, 1.04), although the findings did not reach conventional levels of significance. There was no evidence of an association by age 21 years in males (adjusted per-year increase in aPHV OR 0.99; 95% CI 0.74, 1.31).

Earlier developing adolescents represent a group at increased risk of self-harm. This increased risk attenuates as adolescents transition into adulthood, particularly in males. Future research is needed to identify the modifiable mechanisms underlying the association between pubertal timing and self-harm risk in order to develop interventions to reduce self-harm in adolescence.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere170
Number of pages8
JournalEpidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences
Early online date6 Oct 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Oct 2020

Structured keywords

  • SASH


  • Puberty
  • Pubertal timing
  • Self-harm


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