Investigating the underbelly of family life

Matt Cassels on researching adolescent self-harm and children's relationships with their pets.

Matt Cassels has had a long-standing interest in adolescent self-harm since his high school days when he knew several people who had injured themselves.

“They were not the people I thought were at risk or that adults were worried about,” he says. “They were high achieving, affluent teenagers. I wondered what was going on. I realised the professionals didn’t know any more than their parents.”

His PhD research investigates the pathways to self-harm. Based on a rich longitudinal dataset, Matt has shown an association between family-based trauma before the age of five and self harm between the ages of 14 and 17. “Trauma before age five is a pathway to psychological distress in the teen years and is associated with continuing family trauma,” says Matt [2014]. By highlighting a key predictor of self-harming behaviour he hopes his research can serve to encourage greater focus on interventions before the teen years.  The next step is to look in more depth at the kind of interventions that might work best.

Matt says that, although most teenagers who self harm stop doing so by their late 20s, meaning it is very much an adolescent disorder, self harm is the strongest predictor of suicide, even stronger than previous suicide attempts and depression. Self harm is defined as any action which is committed with the intention to cause injury to the self, such as cutting.

Matt has presented his research at a number of conferences, including at the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury and has four more papers for peer-review journals in the pipeline.

His previous research, based on his master’s project, brought a lot of public interest. 

It investigated children’s relationships with their pets and was part of a broader longitudinal study led by Professor Claire Hughes.

Matt had mentioned in passing that he was interested in the relationship between children and pets, having grown up with 12 pets - guinea pigs, fish, a rabbit, ponies, dogs, cats and a budgie. The rabbit was his best friend when he was a child.

Matt’s research found children derive more satisfaction - and less conflict - from relationships with their pets than with their brothers or sisters. It also found that while boys and girls were equally satisfied with their pets, girls reported more disclosure, companionship, and conflict with their pet than did boys.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, drew a lot of media interest from around the globe.

Childhood

Matt was born in Toronto, Canada. He has one older brother and two younger step-siblings. In grade seven when he was around 11 Matt passed an exam to get onto a programme for gifted children after performing particularly well on verbal skills. He loved creative writing at school and recalls being asked to write a half-page short story. He handed in 25 pages. He kept up his interest in writing throughout school.

Matt really enjoyed his time on the gifted programme, calling it “a mini version of Gates Cambridge, although a little weirder”. He became involved with the theatre at school, writing a one-act play which was performed at a festival. He describes it as an Edwardian murder comedy. The murderer kills a gardener and swallows a watch whose ticking drives him mad.

When he went to Queen’s University as an undergraduate, Matt studied English Literature, Psychology, Archaeology, World Religions and Latin.  At the end of the first year he opted to major in Psychology and minor in English Literature. He was fascinated by Psychology, particularly abnormal psychology and psychopathology. “I was fascinated by what went wrong,” he says.

At university he was also editor of a creative writing review for a year to which he also submitted poetry. He has also published in other publications.

After finishing his course, Matt took a year off and moved across Canada to work as a rock climbing instructor, teaching six to 18 year olds. He had been rock climbing since he was eight and felt he needed a break from academia.

Since he was 10 Matt had dreamed of going to Oxbridge. “I loved the romance of the places,” he says. So he applied to Cambridge to do his master’s. He was very keen to work with Dr Paul Wilkinson whose research on self harm in adolescence he was passionate about.

Matt took a gamble taking up the master’s.  He had been accepted to do a PhD but without any funding. He reckoned it would be better to do the MPhil and then try for funding for the PhD. His plan worked out and he was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship for his PhD in Psychiatry.

After he finishes his PhD, Matt hopes to continue in the area of adolescent psychopathology. He says his experience at the University of Cambridge has been greatly enhanced by being a Gates Cambridge Scholar. “It’s such a rich community,” he says. “More than half of my friends from Cambridge are Gates scholars. Cambridge is a really amazing place and I am sad I am coming to the end of my PhD.”