Girls With ADHD at High Risk for Self-Injury

Bruce Jancin

September 15, 2020

Recent studies constitute a clarion call for clinicians to routinely screen adolescents with ADHD for nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) and its risk factors, Judit Balazs, MD, PhD, said at the virtual congress of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology.

She was lead author of one of these studies, which drew a remarkable and disturbing conclusion: "We found — and it's a very alarming result — that more than 70% of those people who had ADHD and [nonsuicidal self-injury] were girls. The girls with ADHD seem to be a high-risk population," observed Dr. Balazs, professor and chair of the department of developmental psychology at Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest.

NSSI first became a specific diagnosis in the DSM-5. It is defined as deliberate, nonculturally sanctioned, nonsuicidal self-injury on at least five occasions within the past year and carried out with the aim of improving one's emotional state as a result. The prevalence of NSSI among the general population of adolescents is high, with various investigators reporting rates of 15%-45%. Among adolescents with mental disorders, the reported prevalence climbs to 40%-80%. Intriguingly, however, the prevalence of NSSI among adults is just 4%, even though it's now clear that many cases of pediatric-onset ADHD continue on well into adulthood, albeit often undiagnosed.

Whether NSSI and suicidal behavior are actually the same entity is currently a topic of intense research, according to Dr. Balazs, who is both a child and adolescent psychiatrist, as well as an adult psychiatrist.

She presented highlights of her cross-sectional study of 202 adolescent inpatients, 51% of them female, at the Vadaskert Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Hospital, a tertiary care center in Budapest. Using the structured diagnostic Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview for Children and Adolescents (MINI Kid) and the self-rated Deliberate Self-Harm Inventory, Dr. Balazs and her coinvestigators determined that 52 of the adolescents, including 23 boys and 29 girls, met full diagnostic criteria for ADHD and another 77 demonstrated more than five subthreshold ADHD symptoms.

Strikingly, 35 of the 52 teens diagnosed with ADHD, or 67%, had current NSSI. Only 10 of these patients were boys. The other 25, or 71% of the total, were girls.

Dr. Balazs said she and her coinvestigators were surprised by the high prevalence of symptoms of comorbid psychotic disorder in conjunction with NSSI and ADHD. One possible explanation, she opined, is that as inpatients the study participants were at the more severe end of the disease spectrum, and some patients may have been admitted not solely because of the severity of their comorbidities. Another possibility is that, in some cases, what was labeled psychotic disorder may actually have been prodromal unipolar depression.

A key finding in Dr. Balazs's study was that, according to a regression analysis, the relationship between ADHD and NSSI was mediated entirely by the symptoms of the ADHD comorbidities. Specifically, the significant risk factors for NSSI in patients with ADHD were affective disorders, suicidality, and psychotic disorders in both sexes, with the addition of comorbid alcohol abuse or dependence in girls only. There was no evidence of a direct causal relationship between ADHD, per se, and NSSI.

'Findings Warrant Further Investigation'

The study, which looks at the association between NSSI and adolescents is interesting, yet preliminary, said David Fassler, MD, in an interview.

"The authors conclude that girls with ADHD are at particularly high risk of NSSI," said Dr. Fassler, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, Burlington. Dr. Fassler was not involved with the study.

"It is limited by sample size, acuity, and the incidence of comorbidities," said Dr. Fassler, who had no conflicts of interest. "Nonetheless, the findings are intriguing and warrant further investigation with larger samples in diverse clinical settings."

The study was supported by the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund. In addition, Dr. Balazs received funding from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The full details of the study have been published (BMC Psychiatry. 2018 Feb 6;18[1]:34).

SOURCE: Balazs J et al. ECNP 2020, Abstract EDU.02.

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