About self-injury

What is self-injury?
Who self-injures?
How common is self-injury among adolescents and young adults?
When does self-injury start and how long does it last?
Why do people self-injure?
Is self-injury a suicidal act?
What factors contribute to self-injurious behavior?
Is self-injury addictive?
Is self-injury contagious?
What are the dangers of self-injury?
Are rates of self-injurious behavior increasing in the adolescent and young adult population?
Detection, intervention, & treatment
Prevention
References


  • What is self-injury?

    Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) is the deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue resulting in immediate damage, without suicidal intent and for purposes not culturally sanctioned.

    Self-injury can include a variety of behaviors but is most commonly associated with:

    ◦ intentional carving or cutting of the skin
    ◦ subdermal tissue scratching
    ◦ burning oneself
    ◦ banging or punching objects or oneself with the intention of hurting oneself
    ◦ embedding objects under the skin

    Tattoos and body piercing are not typically considered self-injurious unless undertaken with the intention to harm the body.

    Although cutting is one of the most common and well documented forms, there are many things people do to hurt themselves. In fact, our studies have documented over 16 forms of self-injury and there may well be more. Moreover, it is clear that number of forms used by an individual varies significantly; from 1 to over 10. Self-injury can be and is performed on any part of the body, but most often occurs on the hands, wrists, stomach and thighs. The severity of the act can vary from superficial wounds to those resulting in lasting disfigurement. Indeed, about 33% of people who reported self-injury in two college studies said that they had hurt themselves so badly that they should have been seen by a medical professional; only 6.5% had ever been treated for any of their wounds.

    What defines self-injury has less to do with what it looks like (e.g. in what particular way someone hurts his/her body) than with the intention one has when doing it. Because NSSI can look so much like a suicidal gesture, it can be confusing, and often frightening, to those who see it but who do not know what it means. This is one of the reasons that it is important to assess the why of the injuries as well as the what.

    Sources:

    International Society for the Study of Self-injury. Definitional issues surrounding our understanding of self-injury. 2007. (http://itriples.org/index.html)

    Laye-Gindhu, A. & Schonert-Reichl, K. A. (2005). Nonsuicidal self-harm among community adolescents: Understanding the “whats” and “whys” of self-harm. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34, 447-457.

    Whitlock, J.L., Eckenrode, J. & Silverman, D. (2006). Self-injurious behavior in a college population. Pediatrics, 117(6). 1939-1948.

    Whitlock, J, Muehlenkamp, J., Purington, A., Eckenrode, J., Barreira, J., Abrams, G.B., Marchell, T., Kress, K., Girard, K., Chin, C., Knox, K. (2011). Non-Suicidal Self-Injury in a College Population: General Trends and Sex Differences. Journal of American College Health, 59(8): 691-698.

    For downloadable CRPSIR resources click here

  • Who self-injures?

    When it comes to self-injury, there is no one “profile.” Although media tends to represent self-injury as a largely female, middle to upper middle-class, white phenomenon, studies simply do not support this. In fact, there is no evidence for differences in self-injury by socioeconomic status and very little research supports differences by race or ethnicity.

    It is commonly assumed that girls/women are significantly more likely to self-injure than guys/men. In truth, however, this gender divide is not always supported. Studies either tend to find that females and males self-injure at the same rates or that females are a little more likely to injure than males, but not a lot. What does seem to vary by gender is age of onset, length of time self-injuring and methods of injuring. In general, studies find that females are more likely to start younger and to injure longer, using forms, like cutting, that can be more serious than some of the forms males use, like punching. Males are more likely than females to report a social component (e.g., injuring in the presence of others or letting others injure them), and to report injuring while drunk or high. Studies of NSSI in transgender or agendered individuals are rare since it can be so difficult to gather enough data to make inferences in these populations.

    Of all of the demographic characteristics studied, the only thing that consistently shows up as a potent predictor of self-injury is sexual orientation. Studies consistently find that reporting oneself as bisexual (or being sexually attracted to males and females equally) is a really strong risk factor for self-injury, especially among females. Being lesbian or gay does not seem to carry much elevated risk above and beyond being straight. Why we see such a strong association for bisexual females and self-injury is unclear, but has begun to be investigated by researchers in the self-injury field with hopes that we might understand and intervene in supportive ways.

    Sources:

    Andover, M. S., Primack, J. M., Gibb, B. E., & Pepper, C. M. (2010). An examination of non-suicidal self-injury in men: Do men differ from women in basic NSSI characteristics? Archives of Suicide Research: Official Journal of the International Academy for Suicide Research, 14, 79–88.

    Baetens, I., Claes, L., Onghena, P., Muehlenkamp, J., & Grietens, H. (2011). Non-suicidal and suicidal self-injurious behavior among Flemish adolescents: A web-survey. Archives of Suicide Research, 15(1), 56-67

    Andrews, T., Martin, G., Hasking, P., & Page, A. (July 01, 2013). Predictors of Continuation and Cessation of Nonsuicidal Self-Injury. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53, 1, 40-46.

    Whitlock, J, Muehlenkamp, J., Purington, A., Eckenrode, J., Barreira, J., Abrams, G.B., Marchell, T., Kress, K., Girard, K., Chin, C., Knox, K. (2011). Non-Suicidal Self-Injury in a College Population: General Trends and Sex Differences. Journal of American College Health, 59(8): 691-698.

    For downloadable CRPSIR resources click here

  • How common is self-injury among adolescents and young adults?

    Because it so often occurs in private, it is very difficult to identify one or more discrete self-injurer “profiles.” Unless being treated for related conditions, such as depression or anxiety, detecting self-injurious individuals can be very difficult. Thus, most studies of self-injury have relied on samples in clinical settings being treated for other disorders (Brodsky et al., 1995). The few studies which have been conducted in U.S. community samples of young adults and adolescents are limited by small convenience-based samples and vary in estimates of self-injury prevalence from 4% to 38% percent (Briere & Gil, 1998; Favazza, 1996; Gratz, Conrad, & Roemer, 2002; Muehlenkamp & Guiterrez, 2004). A 2006 representative study of two universities showed a 17% lifetime prevalence rate with about 11% indicating repeat self-injury (Whitlock et al., 2006) and recent studies of high school populations in the US and Canada consistently show a 13 to 24% prevalence rate (Laye-Gindhu; & Schonert-Reichl, 2005; Muehlenkamp & Gutierrez, 2004; Muehlenkamp & Gutierrez, 2007; Ross & Health, 2002). Similarly, recent large studies in Britain estimate that approximately 10% of youth aged 11-25 self-injure (Young People and Self-Harm: A National Inquiry, 2004).

    For downloadable CRPSIR resources click here

  • When does self-injury start and how long does it last?

    Self-injury can start early in life. Our research suggests that early onset self-injury is common around the age of 7, although it can begin earlier. Most often, however, self-injury behaviors begin in middle adolescence between the ages of 12 and 15 (see Yates, 2004 for review) and can last for weeks, months, or years. For many self-injury is cyclical rather than linear meaning that it is used for periods of time, stopped, and then resumed. It would be erroneous, however, to assume that self-injury is a fleeting adolescent phenomenon. Data from college studies suggest that 30% – 40% of college respondents report initiating self-injury while 17 years old or older (Whitlock et. al, 2006). Although the majority of college students surveyed report stopping within five years of starting, it is also clear that the behavior can last well into adulthood. Whether or not there exist particular self-injury trajectories that vary based on age and context of onset is unclear but constitutes an important area for investigation.

    For downloadable CRPSIR resources click here

  • Why do people self-injure?

    Reasons given for self-injuring are diverse. Many individuals who practice it report overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or emotional numbness as common emotional triggers. Self-injury, they report, provides a way to manage intolerable feelings or a way to experience some sense of feeling. It is also used as means of coping with anxiety or other negative feelings and to relieve stress or pressure. Those who self-injure also report doing so to feel in control of their bodies and minds, to express feelings, to distract themselves from other problems, to communicate needs, to create visible and noticeable wounds, to purify themselves, to reenact a trauma in an attempt to resolve it or to protect others from their emotional pain (Klonsky, 2007; DiLazzero, 2003). Some report doing it simply because it feels good or provides an energy rush (although few report doing only for these reasons). Regardless of the specific reason provided, self-injury may best be understood as a maladaptive coping mechanism, but one that works – at least for a while.

    Watch a short video about why individuals may engage in self-injury:

    Why Self-Injure? from Cornell Self Injury & Recovery on Vimeo.

  • Is self-injury a suicidal act?

    There are important distinctions between those attempting suicide and those who practice self-injurious behaviors in order to cope with overwhelming negative feelings. Most studies find that self-injury is often undertaken as a means of avoiding suicide. Perhaps one of the most paradoxical features of self-injury is that most of those who practice self-injury report doing so as a means of relieving pain or of feeling something in the presence of nothing. Nevertheless, the particular relationship between self-injury undertaken without suicidal intent and self-injury undertaken with suicidal intent are not clear since individuals who report the former are also more likely to report having considered or attempted suicide (Whitlock, Eckenrode, & Silverman, 2007; Muenhelkamp & Guitierrez, 2004; Nock, Joiner, Gordon, Lloyd-Richardson, & Prinstein, 2006; Hawton, Fagg, Simkin, Bale, & Bond, 2000). Moreover, although it is common to assume that non-suicidal self-injury may be linked solely to suicidal ideation, a recent studies show that individuals with a history of non-suicidal self-injury were over nine times more likely to report suicide attempts, and seven times more likely to report a suicide gesture and nearly six times more likely to report a suicide plan than individuals without a history of non-suicidal self-injury (Whitlock & Knox, 2007). Nevertheless, since the majority of individuals (approximately 60%) with self-injury history report not considering suicide, non-suicidal self-injury may be best understood as a symptom of distress that, if unsuccessfully mitigated, may lead to suicide behavior.

    For downloadable CRPSIR resources click here

  • What factors contribute to self-injurious behavior?

    In clinical populations, self-injury is strongly linked to childhood abuse, especially childhood sexual abuse (Brodsky, Cloitre, & Dulit, 1995; Kolk, Perry, & Herman, 1991). In addition, there is evidence that earlier, more severe abuse and abuse by a family member may lead to greater dissociation and thus greater self-injury (Brodsky et al., 1995). Self-injury is also linked to eating disorders, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, and anxiety disorders (see Yates, 2004, for review). The lack of empirical research in non-clinical populations reinforces the assumption that most or all of SIB is a product of pre-existing disorders, although more recent research in general populations of adolescent and young adults challenges this assumption (Kokaliari, 2004; Whitlock et. al., 2006).

    For downloadable CRPSIR resources click here

  • Is self-injury addictive?

    Most self-injury researchers agree that self-injury does show some addictive qualities and may serve as a form of self-medication for some individuals. In our recent research with college students, a significant number of individuals who practice self-injury report having a difficult time controlling their urge to self-injure and interviews conducted for several of the studies associated with this project shows that many self-injurers describe both the immediate effect and overall practice as something with addictive properties. For example, many interviewees talk about moments of feeling the strong need to injure even when there is no obvious trigger and about having “self-injury free” hours or days. They also liken it to other drugs and talk about needing increasingly more or deeper injuries to feel the same effect. Recognition of the addictive properties of self-injury for some individuals is the basis for the “addiction hypothesis” noted by Grossman and Siever (2001) and summarized by Walsh (2005). The addiction theory suggest that self-injurious acts may solicit involvement of the endogenous opioid system (EOS) which regulates both pain perception and levels of endogenous endorphins which occur as a result of injury (Winchel & Stanley, 1991). The activation of this system can lead to an increased sense of comfort or integration, at least for a short period of time. Repeated activation of the EOS can cause a tolerance effect: Over time those who self-injure may feel less pain while injuring. Overestimation of the EOS can then lead to actual withdrawal symptoms which in turn lead to more self-injurious behavior.

    For downloadable CRPSIR resources click here

  • Is self-injury contagious?

    The seemingly rapid spread of self-injurious behavior among community populations of youth suggests that there may be a contagion factor at work. Indeed, self-injurious behavior has been shown repeatedly to follow epidemic-like patterns in institutional settings such as hospitals and detention facilities (Matthews, 1968; Taiminen et. al., 1998; Rosen & Walsh, 1989). For many, self-injury is a very private, hidden act. Over one third of respondents in our college study indicated that no one knew that they had self-injured and research confirms that the majority of habitual self-injurers discover it through private or accidental experimentation (Favazza & Conterio, 1989). However, anecdotal reports from adults working with youth in school settings report a fad quality to the behavior (Walsh, 2005; Heath, Toste, & Beettam, 2006; Purington, Whitlock & Pochtar, 2010), similar to that which occurs with eating disorders. Consistent with this, survey results of secondary school nurses, counselors and social workers suggest that there may be multiple forms of self-injury in middle and high school settings – some of which include groups of youth injuring together or separately as part of a group membership (Purington et al., 2010). Causes for the spread of the behavior in non-clinical populations have left many wondering what larger contextual factors might be at work. Our research suggests that the Internet and the increasing prevalence of self-ijnury in popular media, such as movies, books, and news reports (Whitlock, Powers, & Eckenrode, 2006; Whitlock, Purington & Gershkovich, 2009) may play a role in the spread of self-injury.

    For downloadable CRPSIR resources click here

  • What are the dangers of self-injury?

    About a quarter of all adolescents and young adults with a history of self-injury report practicing self-injury only once in their lives. Many of these only flirt with the behavior and do not show heightened distress in other ways. However, at least one study has shown that for some youth, even a single episode of self-injury can correlate with a history of abuse and conditions such as suicidality and psychiatric distress (Whitlock et al., 2006). This suggests that there may be a group of adolescents in which a single incident of self-injury is an indicator for other risky behaviors and even a single self-injurious act should be given attention. Studies also show that relatively few individuals who self-injure seek medical assistance when they severely injure themselves. Because of the potential link between self-injury and suicide, self-injury should always be taken seriously, particular if a person is injuring regularly or using methods that can cause a lot of damage to the body (like cutting).

    For downloadable CRPSIR resources click here

  • Are rates of self-injurious behavior increasing in the adolescent and young adult population?

    This is impossible to know because we have no idea how common self-injury used to be in community populations of adolescents and young adults. There is broad consensus, however, among researchers and those who work directly with young people that the phenomenon is increasingly popular. In a recent survey we conducted of college mental health providers and secondary school counselors, nurses, and social workers, virtually all respondents indicated that self-injurious behavior has becoming increasingly prevalent in the last several years (Whitlock, Eells, Cummings, & Purington, 2007; Purington, Whitlock & Pochtar, 2010). In a recent decade long longitudinal cohort study of adolescent self-injury in Great Britain, researchers found a 28 percent increase in the number of adolescents who presented for self-injurious treatment at a general hospital in Oxford, England (Boyce, Oakley-Browne, & Hatcher, 2001). Although no such study has been conducted within the US, the presence of self-injury in new and popular forms of media, such as in newspapers, have increased dramatically in the past several years (Whitlock, Purington, and Gershkovich, 2009). A 2004 Los Angeles Daily News article report maintained that referrals for cutting and other forms of self-injury within the Los Angeles Unified School District increased dramatically in a one year period and the School District’s suicide-prevention hotline fielded 600 calls on self-mutilation in a single 18 month period (Radcliffe, 2004). Whether the increasing attention to self-injury is due to the fact that more youth are actually engaging in the behavior, to increased likelihood to seek help, or to an increasing ability among service providers to correctly identify and report the behavior is unclear. It may very well be a combination of all three.

    For downloadable CRPSIR resources click here

  • Detection, Intervention, & Treatment

    Detecting and intervening in self-injurious behavior can be difficult since the practice is often secretive and involve body parts which are relatively easy to hide. Although experienced therapists in this area can offer advice based on experience, few studies which actually test detection, intervention and treatment strategies have been conducted. The suggestions which follow are those which evolve naturally from existing literature and from interviews with practitioners with significant experience in self-injurious behavior.

    • Unexplained burns, cuts, scars, or other clusters of similar markings on the skin can be signs of self-injurious behavior.

      Arms, fists, and forearms opposite the dominant hand are common areas for injury. However, evidence of self-injurious acts can and do appear on pretty much every body part possible. Other signs include: inappropriate dress for season (consistently wearing long sleeves or pants in summer), constant use of wrist bands / coverings, unwillingness to participate in events / activities which require less body coverage (such as swimming or gym class), frequent bandages, odd / unexplainable paraphernalia (e.g. razor blades or other implements which could be used to cut or pound), and heightened signs of depression or anxiety. When asked, individuals who self-injure may offer stories which seem implausible or which may explain one, but not all, physical indicators such as “It happened while I was playing with my kitten.” It is important that questions about the marks be non-threatening and emotionally neutral. Evasive responses are common. Not knowing how to broach the subject is often what restrains concerned individuals form probing. However, concern for their well-being is often what many who self-injure most need and persistent but neutral probing may eventually elicit honest responses.

    • Schools, parents, medical practitioners, and other youth serving professionals all have an important role to play in identifying self-injury and in assisting youth in getting help.

      Unfortunately, lack of information on self-injury has hampered the creation of informational materials and/or treatment options. The S.A.F.E. Alternatives program in the Linden Oaks Hospital in Edward, Illinois is the one of the only existing inpatient treatment program specific to self-injury in the nation (see www.selfinjury.com). Moreover, while a small but growing body of evidence exists to assist those helping individual self-injurers, little literature exists to explain and address the environmental factors that contribute to adoption of the practice. For those who encounter self-injurious adolescents, creating a safe environment is critical. This can be difficult with youth who have suffered trauma or abuse. Drawing from a number of studies in this area, Kress, Gibon & Reynods (2004) maintain that structure, consistency, and predictability are important elements in forming relationships with self-injurious youth. Developing plans which emphasize a) taking responsibility for the behavior, b) reducing the harm inflicted by the behavior, c) identifying and more positively reacting to self-injury triggers and physical cues, d) identifying safe people and places for assistance when needing to reduce the urge to self-injure, and e) avoiding objects which could be used to self-injure (e.g., paper clips, staples, erasers, sharp objects) can help to reduce the harm associated with self-injurious practices and establish trust. This plan should serve to help stabilize the student and to provide structure and support until community-based counseling can begin.

    • Avoid displaying shock, engaging in shaming responses, or showing great pity.

      The intensely private and shameful feelings associated with self-injury prevent many from seeking treatment. Self-injures often appear in emergency rooms only when self-inflicted wounds are so severe that they require medical treatment such as stitches or bone-setting. Because so little is known about self-injury, it is often misunderstood by medical staff members who provide the initial treatment. This misunderstanding may lead to extremely inappropriate treatment, such as stitching without anesthetic or intense feelings of frustration for the provider who asks, “Why is this person hurting him or herself?” Such reactions, if expressed in shocked or punitive ways, may reinforce the self-injurious behavior and its underlying causes and encourage the self-injurer not to seek care in the future. Self-injury is most often a silent, hidden practice aimed at either squelching negative feelings or overcoming emotional numbness. Being willing to listen to the self-injurer while reserving shock or judgment encourages them to use their voice, rather than their body, as a means of self-expression.

    • Self-injury is, most often, not a suicidal gesture.

      It is important to differentiate between a self-injurious act and a suicide attempt at the outset since the two require different treatments. Mental health and counseling resources should be provided since self-injury is often a signal of underlying, unresolved distress. More long-term treatments may involve psychiatric and/or medical therapy.

    • Self-injury serves a function -- explicitly teaching more appropriate coping strategies may be one way to provide self-injurers with adaptive alternatives.

      Self-injury is most common in youth having trouble coping with anxiety, depression, or other conditions that overwhelm their capacity to regulate their emotion (Chapman, Gratz, Brown, 2006). It is thus important to focus on enhancing awareness of the environmental stressors that trigger self-injury and on helping individuals identify, practice, and use more productive and positive means of coping with their emotional states. Focusing on elimination of the self-injury behavior without enhacing positive means of regulating emotion may simply lead to adoption of other self-destructive behavior, such as drug abuse. Drug therapy may help in some cases as well. Some patients using prescribed drugs for depression have found a reduction in the urge to self-injure while taking these medications (Walsh, 2005). Therapy may be useful in exploring the underlying causes of self-injury. A combination of the above treatments may significantly reduce or completely eliminate self-injurious behavior.

    • Assess the safety of self-injurious practices.

      DiClemente et al. (1991) found that over one quarter of hospitalized adolescents who self-injured reported that they had shared cutting implements with others. Not only are the hazards of disease transmission or infection paramount, but bringing dangerous objects to school can lead to detention or suspension. Those who self-injure as well as those charged with detecting and intervening in self-injurious behavior need to adopt strategies for reducing the harm that can result as a consequence of sharing implements or using objects which might introduce infections.

    • Assess level of group involvement.

      Anecdotal evidence of self-injurious practices among groups of youth is increasingly common. Group self-injury is often a means of group bonding and membership and, as such, is undertaken with aims other than reducing anxiety or coping with overwhelming negative feeling – motivations strongly associated with “lone” self-injurious practices. These differences in motivation are likely to necessitate differences in approaches to intervention and prevention. However, because there is also is evidence that self-injurious behavior can be contagious in institutional settings and anecdotal evidence that it is also showing contagious tendencies in school settings, identifying and intervening in group self-injurious activities is important. The possibility for serious unintentional injury or infection to occur and / or for individuals who begin to self-injure as a means of group membership to develop a dependency on the practice over time augments the importance of early intervention and prevention. Identifying who is involved, the nature and lethality of the self-injurious activities used, and the purpose served for individuals and the groups constitute important first steps in effective detection and intervention.

    • Develop guidelines for detection, intervention and referral.

      Institutions, such as secondary schools and Universities should consider adopting formal guidelines for detecting and managing self-injurious behaviors. In a recent national study of University mental health staff, fewer than 1/3 of the respondents indicated that the institution for which they work possesses a set of guidelines for managing self-injurious or other depression-related behaviors but virtually all agree that it is something about which they would like additional information and guidance (Whitlock, Eells, Cummings, & Purington, 2009). In light of the fact that self-injurious behaviors appear to be increasing and somewhat “contagious”, early detection and intervention is important. Specific resources which might aid with intervention and specific treatment strategies can be located on the resources page of this website.

  • Prevention

    Virtually nothing has been written on effective ways of preventing the adopting of self-injurious practices. Indeed, this is an area badly in need of research. However, we can begin to craft possible strategies by acknowledging dominant reasons for initiating and maintaining self-injurious practices and from lessons in related fields, such as disordered eating.

    • Enhance capacity to cope and regulate emotional perceptions and impulses. Inability to find alternate satisfying ways of coping with strong negative feelings is a highly consistent motivation for engaging in self-injury (Chapman, Gratz, & Brown, 2006). Indeed, one of the most common reasons for ceasing the behavior given in our recent student survey is the adoption of other coping mechanisms. It thus seems logical that effective prevention (and treatment) approaches will include a focus on enhancing individuals’ capacity to cope with adversity. Indeed, this focus is one of the elements of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – one of the more common and effective treatment approaches used with self-injurious behavior (Walsh, 2006). Broad agreement among mental health professionals that capacity to cope is declining in the general population of adolescent and young adults suggests that enhancing capacity to cope may also be a useful part of universal and targeted prevention approaches. Building on existing strengths and exploiting opportunities within institutional curriculum to help youth explore diverse methods of coping with negative feelings may help accomplish this objective.
    • Enhance social connectedness. Those who practice self-injurious behavior also report high levels of perceived loneliness, less dense social networks, less affectionate relationships with their parents, and a history of emotional and/or sexual abuse (Yates, 2004; Whitlock et. al., 2006). They are also more likely to suffer from diminished self-esteem, feelings of invisibility, and shame. Indeed, feeling invisible and inauthentic are common themes among self-injurious students we have interviewed for our studies. Approaches in which adolescents and adults are aided in recognizing and building on existing strengths, in reaching out to and connecting way with others in an authentic and meaningful way, and in participating in activities which allow them to feel meaningfully linked to something larger than themselves may help to shape a more positive view of the self. This may ultimately lessen reliance on potentially damaging coping mechanisms.
    • Avoid strategies aimed primarily at raising knowledge of forms and practices. Strategies aimed primarily at raising knowledge generally use single-shot or knowledge enhancement approaches to educate universal or targeted groups of youth about specific risk behaviors, practices, forms and consequences. In their review of eating disorder prevention strategies and research Levine and Smolak (2005) summarize research which suggests that single-shot awareness raising strategies (e.g., educational assemblies or workshops) are, at best, either not effective or only effective in raising short term knowledge and are, at worst, linked to increases in the behavior they intend to stop. Adverse effects were particularly evidenced in high school and college populations. Repeated and rigorous evaluation of the popular DARE program aimed at reducing drug use among youth has also been shown to be ineffective and, at worst, harmful (Lynam et al., 1999; Brown, D’Emidio-Caston, & Pollard, 1997). In many ways, these findings are consistent with common sense when regarded in the context of developmental processes – adult attention to specific risk behaviors, particularly if highly informative but of short duration or thoughtful follow-up, can be scintillating to adolescents interested in seeking adult attention or taking risks. Strategies which raise awareness about underlying factors (e.g. role of media or the cultural thinness ideal in promoting eating disorders) are not the same as those which simply educate about the prevalence, forms and practices associated with a specific issue and are likely to be more effective in positively raising awareness.
    • Equip staff and faculty to recognize and respond to signs of self-injurious behavior. Although it may be unwise to share detailed information about self-injurious behavior with large groups of youth, adults likely to encounter adolescents or young adults who engage is self-injurious behavior do need to know signs and symptoms. They also need to know what to do if they suspect or know someone is using self-injurious practices. Toward this end, raising awareness among adults as well as establishing protocols for referral is helpful for those who work directly with youth.
    • Focus on increasing staff and student capacity to recognize distress. As with many risk behaviors, our research shows that peers are most often the first to know or suspect that a friend is using self-injurious practices. As such, peers constitute the “front line” in detection and intervention. In light of the above recommendation to avoid awareness raising strategies about self-injurious behaviors with youth, we advocate concentrating effort on assisting young people recognize general symptoms of distress in their peers. Self-injurious behavior could be one of several categories of behaviors and perceptions assessed (mixing both positive and negative indicators avoids a solely deficit-based slant to findings) such as perceived wellbeing, eating disorders,life satisfaction, depression, relationships with adults, suicidality, etc. Additionally, while a few examples might be useful in explaining what is meant by self-injury, detailed description of forms could be avoided. In addition to educating about how to recognize distress, students could be encouraged to seek assistance and coached on specific strategies for getting help.
    • Promote and advertise positive norms related to help-seeking and communication about mental and emotional status and needs. It often requires more than a program or two to change embedded patterns. The tendency for peers to show loyalty to friends rather than to adults is strong (and, in many ways, fundamentally socially adaptive). Peers with knowledge of a friend’s dangerous behavior are may be unlikely to share that knowledge with an adult without concentrated effort by adults to alter adolescent and adult norms about help-seeking and communication — particularly communication between adolescents and adults. Strategies focused on altering community norms in social support and help seeking have been shown to be exceptionally effective in suicide prevention in a general population of adults in the US Air Force (Knox et al., 2003). Whether this approach will prove effective with self-injurious and suicide-related behaviors in adolescent and young adult populations is the subject of current research between this researchers with the CRPSIB and Dr. Knox of the University of Rochester.
    • Address sources of stress in external environment. The relationship between the sheer volume of stress or risk factors individuals confront and negative outcomes is well documented. Researchers have overwhelmingly shown that the more risk factors an individual confronts, the less like they are to thrive and the more likely they are to exhibit negative behaviors and attitudes (Sameroff, 1993; Rutter, 1989). The capacity to manage multiple stressors simultaneously is particularly difficult for children and adolescents who attempting to successfully meet core developmental needs as well. Although empirically impossible to verify, the argument that contemporary children and youth confront an increasingly complex and varied set of stress and risk factors when compared to previous generations is persuasive (Garbarino, 1995) and may be one reason for increases in rates of mental illness, including self-injurious behavior. If so, as Levine and Smolak (2005) argue for eating disorders, targeting environmental sources of stress may be a fundamentally more effective prevention strategy than targeting individual youth deemed to be at risk for self-injurious or other concerning behaviors.
    • Educate youth to understand the role media plays in influencing behavior. Media has consistently been shown to affect child and adolescent behavior in profound ways (Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski & Eron, 2003; DuRant et al., 2003). Examination of the possible role media plays in spreading the idea of self-injurious behavior is one of the projects undertaken as part of this study program. Our preliminary findings support the assumption that images, songs, and news articles in which self-injurious behavior is featured has increased significantly over the past decade. As Brumberg (1992) has argued for eating disorders, highly visible public displays of self-injurious behavior may add potentially lethal behaviors to the repertoire of young people exploring identity options. Helping adolescents and young adults become critical consumers of media may lessen their vulnerability to adoption of glamorized but fundamentally poor coping strategies.

    For downloadable CRPSIR resources click here

  • References

    • Bhugra, D., Singh, J., Fellow-Smith, E., & Bayliss, C. (2002). Deliberate self-harm in adolescents. A case study among two ethnic groups. European Journal of Psychiatry, 16(3),
      145-151.
    • Boyce, P., Oakley-Browne, M.A., & Hatcher, S. (2001). The problem of deliberate self-harm. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 14, 107-111.
    • Briere, J., & Gil, E. (1998). Self-mutilation in clinical and general population samples: Prevalence, correlates, and functions. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 68(4), 609-620
    • Brodsky, B.S., Cloitre, M., & Dulit, R. A. (1995). Relationship of dissociation to self-mutilation and childhood abuse in borderline personality disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 152(12), 1788-1792.
    • Brown, J.H., D’Emidio-Caston, M., & Pollard, J.A. (1997). Students and substances: Social power in drug education. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 19, 65-82.
    • Chapman, A.L., Gratz, K.L., & Brown, M.Z. (2006). Solving the puzzle of deliberate self-harm: The experiential avoidance model. Behavior Research and Therapy, 44, 371-394.
    • DiClemente, R.J., Ponton, L.E., & Hartley, D. (1991). Prevalence and correlates of cutting behavior: Risk for HIV transmission. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 30, 735-738.
    • DiLazzero, D.B. (2003). Addressing self-injury in a college environment: A psychoeducational program. University of Hartford, Hartford.
    • DuRant, D.H., Rich, M., Emans, S.J., Rome , E.S., Allred, E., Woods, E.R., et al. (2003). The relationship between watching professional wrestling on television and engaging in health risk behaviors among young adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health,30,114.
    • FACTIVA [database online]. Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive LLC. Accessed April 10, 2006.
    • Farber, S. K. (1997). Self-medication, traumatic reenactment, and somatic expression in bulimic and self-mutilating behavior. Clinical Social Work Journal, 25(1), 87-106.
    • Favazza, A.R. (1996). Bodies under siege: Self mutilation and body modification in culture and psychiatry (2 ed.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
    • Favazza, A.R., & Conterio, K. (1989). Female habitual self-mutilators. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 79, 283-289.
    • Garrison, C.Z., Addy, C. L., McKeown, R.E., & Cuffe, S.P. (1993). Nonsuicidal physically self-damaging acts in adolescents. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 2, 339-352.
    • Gratz, K.L. (2001). Measurement of deliberate self-harm: Preliminary data on the deliberate self-harm inventory. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 23(4), 253-263.
    • Gratz, K.L., Conrad, S.D., & Roemer, L. (2002). Risk factors for deliberate self-harm among college students. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72, 128-140.
    • Hawton, K., Fagg, J., Simkin, S., Bale, E., & Bond, A. (2000). Deliberate self-harm in Oxford, 1985-1995. Journal of Adolescence, 23(1), 47-55.
    • Hawton, K., Rodham, K., Evans, E. (2006). By their own young hand: Deliberate self-harm and suicide ideas in adolescence. Kingsley: London.
    • Heath, N.L., Toste, J.R., & Beettam, E. (2006). “I am not well-equipped”: High school teachers’ perceptions of self-injury. Canadian Journal of School Psychology 21(1-2), 73-92.
    • Huesmann, R.L., Moise-Titus, J. Podolski C.L., & Eron, L.D. (2003). Longitudinal relations between children’s exposure to TV violence and their aggressive and violent behavior in young adulthood: 1977 – 1992. Developmental Psychology, 39(2).
    • Klonsky, E.D. (2007). The functions of deliberate self-injury. A review of the evidence. Clinical Psychology Review, 27, 226-239.
    • Knox, K.L., Litts, D.A., Talcott, G.W., Feig, J.C., & Caine, E.D. (2003). Risk of suicide and related adverse outcomes after exposure to a suicide prevention programme in the U.S. Air Force: Cohort study. British Medical Journal, 327, 1376-1381.
    • Kokaliari, E. (2004). Deliberate self-injury: An investigation of the prevalence and psychosocial meanings in a non-clinical female college population. Dissertation. Smith College.
    • Klonsky, E.D., Oltmanns, T.F., & Turkheimer, E. (2003). Deliberate self-harm in a non-clinical population: Prevalence and psychological correlates. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160, 1501-1508.
    • Kress, V.E., Gibson, D.M., Reynolds, C.A. (2004) Adolescents who self-injure: Implications and strategies for school counselors. Professional School Counseling, February.
    • Laye-Gindhu, A. & Schonert-Reichl, K.A. (2005). Nonsuicidal self-harm among community adolescents: Understanding the “whats” and “whys” of self-harm. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34(5), 447-457.
    • Levine, M. & Smolak, L. (2005). The prevention of eating problems and eating disorders: Theory, research, and practice. New Jersey: Erlbaum.
    • Lynam, D.R, Milich, R, Zimmerman, R., Novak, S. P., Logan , T. K., Martin, C., Leukefeld, C., & Clayton, R. (1999).
    • Project DARE: No effects at 10-year follow-up. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,67(4).
    • Marshall, H. & Yazdani, A. (1999). Locating culture in accounting for self-harm amongst Asian young women. Journal of Community Applied Social Psychology, 9(6), 413-433.
    • Martin, G., Rozanes, P., Pearce, C., & Allison, S. (1995). Adolescent suicide, depression and family dysfunction. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 92, 336-344.
    • Matthews, P.C. (1968). Epidemic self-injury in an adolescent unit. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 14:125-133.
    • Muehlenkamp, J.J., & Gutierrez, P.M. (2004). An investigation of differences between self-injurious behavior and suicide attempts in a sample of adolescents. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, 34, 12-24.
    • Nock, M.K., Joiner, T.E., Gordon, K.H., Lloyd-Richardson, E., & Prinstein, M.J. (2006). Non-suicidal self-injury among adolescents: Diagnostic correlates and relation to suicide attempts. Psychiatry Research, 144(1), 65-72.
    • Purington, A., Whitlock, J., & Pochtar, R. (2010). Non-suicidal self-injury in secondary schools: A descriptive study of prevalence, characteristics, and interventions. Manuscript submitted for publication.
    • Radcliffe, J. (2004, March 28). Self-destructive “cutters” live their lives on the edge. Los Angeles Daily News.
    • Rosen, P.M., & Heard, K.V. (1995). A method for reporting self-harm according to level of injury and location on the body. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, 25(3), 381-385.
    • Rosen P.M., Walsh B.W. (1989). Patterns of contagion in self mutilation epidemics. American Journal of Psychiatry, 146(5): 656-658.
    • Ross, S., & Heath, N.L. (2003). Two models of adolescent self-mutilation. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, 33(3), 277-287.
    • Rutter, M. (1989). Pathways from childhood to adult life. Journal of Psychology and Psychiatry, 30, 23-51.
    • Sameroff, A.J. (1993). Models of development and developmental Risk. In C. H. Zeanah (Ed.), Handbook of Infant Mental Health. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
    • Skegg, K. (2005). Self-harm. Lancet, 366, 1471-1483.
    • Taiminen T.J., Kallio-Soukainen K., Nokso-Kovisto H., Kaljonen A., Helenius H. (1998). Contagion of deliberate self-harm among adolescent inpatients. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 37(2): 211-217.
    • Walsh, B.W. (2005). Treating self-injury: A practical guide. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
    • Whitlock, J., Eells, G., Cummings, N., & Purington, A. (2009). Nonsuicidal self-injury in college populations: Mental health provider assessment of prevalence and need. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 23(3), 172-183.
    • Whitlock, J.L., Eckenrode, J.E. & Silverman, D. (2006). The epidemiology of self-injurious behavior in a college population. Pediatrics, 117(6).
    • Whitlock, J.L. & Knox, K. (2007). The relationship between suicide and self-injury in a young adult population. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. 161(7).
    • Whitlock, J.L., Muehlenkamp, J., Eckenrode, J. (2008). Variation in non-suicidal self-injury: Identification of latent classes in a community population of young adults. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. 37(4). 725-735.
    • Whitlock, J., Muehlenkamp, J., Purington, A., Eckenrode, J., Barreira, J., Abrams, G.B., Marchell, T., Kress, K., Girard, K., Chin, C., Knox, K. (in press) Non-suicidal self-injury in a college population: General trends and sex differences. Journal of American College Health.
    • Whitlock, J.L., Purington, A., Gershkovich, M. (2009). Influence of the media on self injurious behavior. In Understanding non-suicidal self-injury: Current science and practice, edited by M. Nock. American Psychological Association Press. 139-156.
    • Winchel, R.M. & Stanley, M. (1991). Self-injurious behavior: A review of the behavior and biology of self-mutilation. American Journal of Psychiatry, 148(3), 306-317.
    • Young People and Self-Harm: A National Inquiry. (2004). What do we already know? Prevalence, risk factors & models of intervention. Retrieved from http://www.selfharmuk.org

Contact Information

Please feel free to contact us if you have questions, would like additional information about our education and consulting services, or want to participate in our study activities.

© 2013 The Cornell Research Program for Self-Injury Recovery. All Rights Reserved. Website by Bells Design

Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research