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Self-Reported Experience of Self-Injurious Behavior in College Students

By Kakhnovets, Regina; Young, Hannah L. et al. | Journal of Mental Health Counseling, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Self-Reported Experience of Self-Injurious Behavior in College Students


Kakhnovets, Regina, Young, Hannah L., Purnell, Amanda Lienau, Huebner, Edward, Bishop, Christa, Journal of Mental Health Counseling


The purpose of this study was to gain firsthand qualitative information about the experience of self-injurious behavior (SIB) by asking the 79participants to describe their experiences before, during, and after SIB. Students with a history of SIB were separated into two groups: those students who self-injured only once and those who had harmed themselves multiple times. The most common experiences for both groups directly before SIB were feeling depressed, angry, and out of control, but the two groups reported different experiences during and after SIB.

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In recent years much research attention has been given to self-injurious behavior (SIB) in adolescents and, to a lesser degree, college students. The findings are difficult to interpret because the definition of SIB varies from study to study. Some have referred to it as "attempted suicide" or "parasuicide" (Johnston, Cooper, Webb, & Kapur, 2006). However, it has been found that suicidal behaviors and SIB are not the same (Muehlenkamp & Gutierrez, 2004). In fact, Whitlock, Eckenrode, and Silverman (2006) report that 66% of all participants in their study who engaged in SIB reported never experiencing suicidal ideation or suicide attempts.

Here SIB is defined as any behavior that seeks out pain and/or blood on one's own body tissue without conscious suicidal intent (Croyle & Waltz, 2007; Gratz, 2006; Gratz & Chapman, 2007; ISSS, 2007). This definition does not include cultural practices (i.e., tattooing and body piercing) or repetitive behaviors of individuals with cognitive and developmental disorders (Gratz & Chapman, 2007; International Society for the Study of Self-Injury [ISSS], 2007).

Typically, individuals first engage in SIB between the ages of 12 and 14 and may continue into the 20s and 30s (Austin & Kortum, 2004; White, Trepal-Wollenzier, & Nolan, 2002). Although there are no reliable estimates of SIB in the nonclinical population, studies of U.S. adolescents and young adults estimate the prevalence at 12-38% (Favazza, 1992; Gratz, Conrad, & Roemer, 2002; Ross & Heath, 2002; Muehlenkamp & Gutierrez, 2004; Whitlock et al., 2006). Most individuals have reported using multiple methods of self-harm (Favazza, 1998; Muehlenkamp, 2005). The most common locations for self-injury are the arms, legs, chest, and other areas on the front of the body (Favazza, 1996). SIB is typically performed in private, and individuals are careful to discard any evidence (Froeschle & Moyer, 2004). Nearly 40% of the college students reporting SIB indicated that no one was aware of it and only 3.2% indicated that their physician knew (Whitlock et al., 2006). It appears that while a substantial population of adolescents and college students engage in SIB, only a small percentage of them ever seek help or tell anyone about it.

To date, more information is available about SIB in females (Zila & Kiselica, 2001). Many studies have had primarily female participants (Ryan, Heath, Fischer, & Young, 2008; Wagner & Rehfuss, 2008) or uneven distributions of males and females (Heath, Toste, Nedecheva, & Charlebois, 2008). For example, Heath and colleagues surveyed 728 students, of whom only 160 were male. Their findings indicated that of the 85 college students who indicated SIB, only 15 were male.

At first glance, such numbers may suggest that women are more likely to engage in SIB than men. However, because of the discrepancy in the number of male and female participants, Heath et al. (2008) reported that there are no significant differences in the prevalence of SIB for men and women. Other studies have also reported comparable rates of SIB for college-aged men and women (Gratz et al., 2002). While SIB rates for males and females may be equivalent (Briere & Gil, 1998), the methods they used seem to differ. Specifically, women are more likely to scratch, pinch, and cut and men are more likely to punch an object (Whitlock et al.

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