Self-injury in young people is gateway to suicide

December 5, 2012 by Ted Boscia, Cornell University

(Medical Xpress)—Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI)—deliberately harming one's body through such acts as cutting, burning or biting—is a primary risk factor for future suicide in teens and young adults, finds a new longitudinal study of college students led by a Cornell mental health researcher.

The paper, published online Dec. 4 in the , describes how NSSI, thought to be a coping mechanism for some individuals in distress, may also open the door to more dangerous actions by lowering one's inhibitions to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

"While we can't conclude that self-injury leads to later , it is a red flag that someone is distressed and is at greater risk," said lead author Janis Whitlock, Ph.D. '03, a research scientist in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR). "This is important because self-injury is a relatively new behavior that does not show up much in the literature as a risk factor for suicide. It also suggests that if someone with self-injury history becomes suicidal, having engaged in NSSI may make it much easier to carry out the physical actions needed to lethally damage the body."

In a of 1,466 students at five U.S. colleges, Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and , and co-investigators found NSSI to precede or coincide with suicidal thoughts and behaviors in slightly more than 60 percent of cases observed.

Participants, most in their early 20s, answered a confidential mental health survey annually for three years that assessed their history of NSSI and suicidal thoughts and behaviors, along with demographic information and common protective and risk factors. Researchers found that, independent of other , people who had self-injured were nearly three times as likely to attempt or consider suicide, while those with a history of five or more instances of were four times more likely to do so. The study has implications for NSSI treatment and suicide prevention. Previous studies have shown as many as 20 percent of college students and 25-35 percent of teens have a lifetime history of NSSI. Given its prevalence, Whitlock noted that physicians and others who work with youth should be better trained to spot such behaviors and assess for suicide risk.

Of many protective factors considered, the study identified two that appear to help lower the suicide risk in young people with a history of NSSI. Participants who had confided in their parents about their distress and those who perceived meaning in life were significantly less likely to show and behaviors.

"Meaning in life as a protective factor is not so surprising, because many who attempt suicide report that they feel a deep and often chronic lack of life meaning," Whitlock said. "However, considering that we studied a college population, it's a surprise that the parents emerged as having such a powerful influence in young adults' mental well-being, especially since we looked at respondents' relationships with all kinds of people, including therapists. Treatments for people at risk for should focus on strengthening these relationships when feasible."

Explore further: Кesearcher identifies factors to help parents and professionals recognize teens in distress

Related Stories

Кesearcher identifies factors to help parents and professionals recognize teens in distress

October 4, 2012
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, a University of Missouri public health expert has identified factors that will help parents, medical ...

Research finds bullies and victims three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts by age 11

February 29, 2012
as both a victim and a bully – are three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts by the time they reach 11 years old, according to research from the University of Warwick.

40 percent of youths attempting suicide make first attempt before high school

November 28, 2011
Thoughts about killing oneself and engaging in suicidal behavior may begin much younger than previously thought. While about one of nine youths attempt suicide by the time they graduate from high school, new findings reveal ...

Recommended for you

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Reducing sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy does not affect effectiveness

January 17, 2018
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients treated with as few as five sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy find it equally effective as receiving 12 sessions.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.