About 17 percent of college students -- 20 percent of women and 14 percent of men -- report that they have cut, burned, carved or harmed themselves in other ways, reports a new survey by Cornell and Princeton University researchers, the largest study on self-injurious behavior (SIB) in the United States to date.
However, fewer than 7 percent of the students studied had ever sought medical help for their self-inflicted physical injuries.
"Self-injurious behavior is defined as inflicting harm to one's body without the obvious intent of committing suicide," said Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behaviors in the Family Life Development Center (FLDC) at Cornell and lead author of the study, published in the June issue of Pediatrics. SIB also may include such behaviors as ripping or pulling skin or hair, biting, bruising and breaking bones, she said.
The findings, the researchers contend, may reflect broader national trends: "Our findings are entirely consistent with nationally representative research in the United Kingdom and with smaller studies in the United States and Canada, which show self-injury to be a widespread phenomenon among adolescents and young adults," said Whitlock, adding, "There is virtually universal consensus among college and secondary-school mental health providers that many psychological disorders, including SIB, have increased significantly in the past five years."
Many professionals assert, she said, that young people today possess fewer coping mechanisms and face more stressful situations than in the past.
The study, which was conducted on the Cornell and Princeton campuses, reported that although there were not many demographic differences between the self-injurers in their study and those who have not self-injured, self-injurers were more likely to be bisexual or to question their sexual orientation. They were also slightly more likely to be female (55 percent) and less likely to be Asian or Asian-American.
About three-quarters of the self-injurers had engaged in the practice more than once, the study found, and 70 percent of that group reported using multiple methods to hurt themselves. The most common methods reported by both young men and women were scratching to the point of bleeding, cutting or punching with the intent of causing injury.
When controlling for such demographic factors as gender, socio-economic status, race and sexual orientation, the researchers found that those who had repeat incidents of SIB, compared with non-self-injurers, were:
* almost six times more likely to have considered or attempted suicide;
* 3.5 times more likely to report a history of emotional abuse;
* three times more likely to report high levels of recent psychological distress; and
* twice as likely to report characteristics of an eating disorder.
Respondents reporting a single incident of self-injury, compared with those who have never attempted to hurt themselves, were:
* nearly four times more likely to report high levels of recent psychological distress;
* 2.5 times more likely to report a history of emotional abuse; and
* nearly twice as likely to have considered or attempted suicide.
The survey of 3,069 students was conducted with John Eckenrode, professor of human development and director of the FLDC at Cornell, and Daniel Silverman, M.D., Princeton's chief medical officer and executive director of University Health Services.
The average age of the first incident of self-injury, according to the survey, was between 14 and 15 years, but more than 41 percent of the self-injurers in the survey started between the ages of 17 and 22 -- when they were most likely to have been in college.
Most self-injurers did not seek help from medical or mental health professionals. One in five indicated they had injured themselves more severely than they intended on at least one occasion, and one in four of repeat self-injurers said they had hurt themselves so badly that they should have seen a physician. However, fewer than 7 percent of all self-injurious respondents had ever sought medical help for their physical injuries.
"We need solid research to understand how to detect, treat and prevent the growing problem of self-injurious behavior in young adults. This study represents an important step toward this goal, providing significant detail regarding characteristics of college students who self-injure," said Jaquie Resnick, director of the Counseling Center at the University of Florida.
For more information about SIB and the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behaviors, see http://www.crpsib.com.
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