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Child Development

Self-Injury: A Disturbing New Teen Trend

There's a disturbing new trend among adolescents today - cutting.

In case you haven't heard, there's a disturbing new trend among adolescents today - cutting. More specifically, recent research has revealed that a surprisingly high proportion of adolescents engage in what researchers call "nonsuicidal self-injury" or NSSI. Recent data indicate that approximately 7% of middle school youth, 15% of high school students, and almost one third of all adolescents referred for clinical treatment engage in NSSI. Cutting seems to be the most common form of NSSI among adolescents, but many other strategies for harming oneself without an intent to die also are reported frequently (e.g., hitting, burning, etc.). Some reports in the popular media have referred to NSSI as "today's bulimia," referring to beliefs that like bulimia, NSSI is predominantly prevalent among females, most often occurs covertly, and is used as a way to relieve extreme emotional distress. These beliefs are somewhat true. In actuality, males and female adolescents equally are likely to engage in NSSI, and recent research suggests that some adolescents may engage in the behavior somewhat publically.

Why Self Injure?
Although NSSI may be increasing in frequency among adolescents today, there is surprisingly little information about this troubling phenomenon. Only recently has NSSI been considered a distinct type of psychological symptom that deserves mention in the diagnostic manual of psychiatric disorders used in the US (i.e., the upcoming DSM-V, see Proposed Revisions).

Data from recent investigations, including our own work (published with Dr. Matthew Nock), have offered good evidence supporting four reasons why individuals engage in NSSI. Each of these reasons suggests that NSSI serves a psychological function for the individual. First, and reported most commonly, is that among some teens, NSSI helps to reduce feelings of negative affect or stress. Second, among teens who feel "numb" or "empty," NSSI is reported as a way to help produce feelings, even if that feeling is pain. Third, some adolescents report that NSSI elicits a desired response from others in the social environment (e.g., support or an emotional reaction). Last, some adolescents indicate that NSSI may help to avoid an unpleasant social situation. Although extremely maladaptive, some research suggests that NSSI indeed is effective in serving these functions. Adolescents report that following NSSI, negative affect is relieved, desired feelings are produced, and/or the desired social responses follow.

NSSI: An Important Warning Sign
Given the increasing popularity of NSSI, coupled with adolescents' perceptions that this behavior may be an effective way to achieve a desired psychological state, it is critical that those involved in the lives of adolescents know the risks associated with this dangerous behavior. Of course, the most concerning issue pertains to serious physical harm that obviously can result from self-injury. Second, although evidence is still accumulating, current theory suggests that NSSI may increase adolescents' likelihood of future suicidal behaviors. IMPORTANT: all instances of self-injury must be taken seriously. Talking about self-injury doesn't make it more likely to occur. Rather, talking with adolescents who have engaged, or soon may engage in self-injurious behavior can assist adolescents in finding alternate, more adaptive strategies for dealing with negative psychological states. Of course, if an adolescent you know is a risk of seriously harming themselves in the near future, call 911, or visit the emergency department of your local hospital immediately.

More information regarding NSSI and our knowledge about how to reduce its prevalence among adolescents coming soon...

Copyright © Mitch Prinstein, 2010. All rights reserved.

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