The effect of low childhood income on self-harm in young adulthood: Mediation by adolescent mental health, behavioural factors and school performance

Joonas Pitkanen*, Maarten J. Bijlsma, Hanna Remes, Mikko Aaltonen, Pekka Martikainen

*Corresponding author for this work

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Low childhood income is an established risk factor of self-harm in adolescence and young adulthood, and childhood income is additionally associated with various correlates of self-harm. How these correlates, such as psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, violent behaviour and school problems, mediate the effect of childhood income on self-harm, is less understood. The purpose of the current paper is to examine this mediation. The study is based on administrative register data on all Finnish children born in 1990-1995. An analytical sample of 384,121 children is followed from age 8 to 22. We apply the parametric g-formula to study the effect of childhood income on the risk of self-harm in young adulthood. Adolescent psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, prior self-harm, violent criminality and victimization, out-of-home placements, not being in education, employment or training and school performance are considered as potential mediators. We control for confounding factors related to childhood family characteristics. As a hypothetical intervention, we moved those in the lowest childhood income quintile to the second-lowest quintile, which resulted in a 7% reduction in hospital-presenting self-harm in young adulthood among those targeted by the intervention (2% reduction in the total population). 67% of the effect was mediated through the chosen mediators. The results indicate that increases in childhood material resources could protect from self-harm in young adulthood. Moreover, the large proportion of mediation suggests that targeted interventions for high-risk adolescents may be beneficial. To our knowledge, this is the first paper to use the parametric g-formula to study youth self-harm. Future applications are encouraged as the method offers several further opportunities for analysing the complex life course pathways to self-harm.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100756
Number of pages9
JournalSSM - Population Health
Publication statusPublished - Mar-2021


  • Childhood income
  • Self-harm
  • Adolescence
  • Young adulthood
  • Mediation analysis
  • G-formula

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