We would like to congratulate Matthew Cassels on completing his PhD! Matthew completed his PhD under the supervision of Dr Paul Wilkinson. Here, Matthew gives us a quick summary of his work and findings.
Can you give us a short background into what you’ve been studying these last few years?
I studied risk factors for self-harm among adolescents. Non-suicidal self-harm is very common among young people, but its causes are poorly understood. It was my hope that by gaining a better understanding of what leads some young people to engage in self-harm, treatments and interventions can be improved. In particular I focused on the roles of childhood trauma, family and peer relationships, impulsivity, and psychological distress.
How would you sum up your main findings?
Findings from multiple large samples of adolescents and young adults indicated that childhood trauma, poor child-parent relationships, impulsivity, and psychological distress were all strong risk factors for self-harm. In addition, I found that trauma impacts risk for self-harm by causing family dysfunction and psychological distress. Likewise, I found that poor child-parent relationships impact self-harm by causing distress. These findings indicate that distress and child-parent relationships may be viable targets for intervention to reduce rates of self-harm among young people, and to attenuate the impact of childhood trauma. I also found that among young adolescents, behavioural problems may be particularly relevant to self-harm as both a warning sign and a target for intervention, even more so than emotional problems.
What made you want to do a PhD?
I’ve always really liked school, I like solving problems, and I love being surrounded by people doing completely different things than me. So I think doing a PhD was just the obvious way to stay in that kind of environment doing what I enjoyed for as long as possible.
What was your best day during your PhD?
I had a lot of really wonderful experiences over the course of my PhD. I definitely took full advantage of the freedom a PhD (and a lenient supervisor) afford and engaged deeply in the non-academic side of Cambridge: serving on my MCR, rowing for college, attending almost daily talks and events outside of my faculty, and almost never missing the weekly college port night. I was also really privileged to be able to present my own research at a couple of international conferences, the coolest of which took place inside Heidelberg Castle. Really some of the most positive experiences, however, came from something I was dreading the most. As part of my procedure for my primary study, I had to do follow-up risk-assessment phone interviews with participants I was worried about given their responses. This was something I was really not looking forward to, because of the obvious awkwardness and discomfort of asking young people I’d never met for details about their histories of abuse, depression, and self-harm. In general, however, the young people I got in touch with seemed really grateful that somebody was talking to them about their problems and many more than I expected took me up on my offer to contact their GP’s for them or to provide them with information on mental health resources available to them. An equally surprising number assured me that they were already taking steps to improve their mental-health and seek help. It was a really heart-warming and gratifying experience.
What was your worst day (if any!) during your PhD?
I can’t remember any truly terrible days. I certainly ran into some stumbling blocks; one piece of analyses I expected to take about a fortnight actually dragged on for 7 months and still isn’t published, and data collection for my main study took about a year longer than I had anticipated. But I think all that is par for the course really and overall I felt it was smooth sailing.
What do you hope to do next?
In the short term I’m hoping to go on a bit of an adventure actually. I’m looking into working on a nature reserve in Namibia, or teaching rock climbing in New Zealand. After that I’d like to do something with a positive impact on the world, whether that’s through writing something that brings people joy, conducting research that helps people suffering from psychological illness, or some other pathway, I’m still not sure.