Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Adolescents Who Self-Injure: Implications and Strategies for School Counselors

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Adolescents Who Self-Injure: Implications and Strategies for School Counselors

Article excerpt

This article explores strategies for school counselors to use in intervening and managing adolescent students who engage in self-injurious behaviors. The school counselor's roles in intervention, referral, education, advocacy, and prevention are discussed, Implications and recommendations for school counselors are addressed.


In recent years, the media and popular literature have begun to address the issue of adolescent self-injurious behavior, and many counselors have had an increasing exposure to students who engage in these behaviors. Approximately 13% of adolescents sampled in one recent survey indicated that they engaged in self-injurious behaviors (Ross & Heath, 2002), and research has indicated that self-injury is becoming increasingly prevalent among adolescents (Hawton, Fagg, Simkin, Bale, & Bond, 1997). The incidence of self-injurious behaviors rises to 40% to 61% in adolescent inpatient settings and is ostensibly beginning earlier in the childhood and adolescent years (Conterio, Lader, & Bloom, 1998; Darche, 1990; DiClemente, Ponton, & Hartley, 1991).

Self-injurious behavior is discussed often with regard to the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled populations--people diagnosed with psychotic disorders, personality disorders, and dissociative identity disorder; however it is rarely addressed in discussions of the general adolescent population (Zila & Kiselica, 2001). This article focuses on self-injurious behaviors associated with adolescents in the non-severely mentally disabled population (e.g., mental retardation, schizophrenia, etc.). This article also is delimited to self-injurious behaviors involving self-cutting, interference with wound healing, scratching, and burning, but will not explore issues associated with hair pulling (e.g., trichotillomania), and extreme forms of self-injury (e.g., eye enucleation, amputation of body parts, breaking bones, etc.) as these are less commonly presented in school settings.

It is important to acknowledge that most cultures have forms of culturally acceptable and sanctioned self-injurious behaviors (Favazza, 1996). For example, among adolescents in Western culture, ear piercing, tattooing, and various forms of body piercing are becoming more commonplace. Deviant forms of self-injury are generally considered physically damaging and occur in response to psychological crisis. These acts demonstrate a sense of disconnection and alienation from others; the line between socially sanctioned self-injury and deviant self-injury can be hazy (Dallam, 1997).

Self-cutting is one of the most common forms of self-injury found in the non-hospitalized population, followed by burning, pinching, scratching, biting, self-hitting, and interference with wound healing (Briere & Gil, 1998; Ross & Heath, 2002; Taiminen, Kallio-Soukainen, Nokso-Koivisto, Kaljonen, & Helenius, 1998). The areas that are most typically injured are the arms and wrists, legs, abdomen, head, chest, and genitals, respectively (Conterio et al., 1998; Zila & Kiselica, 2001). In the literature, many varied definitions abound as to what constitutes self-injury. In this article, self-injury will be defined as a volitional act to harm one's body without any intention to die as a result of the behavior (Simeon & Favazza, 2001; Yarura-Tobias, Neziroglu, & Kaplan, 1995).

In many ways, the current awareness of self-injurious behaviors parallels the appreciation of eating disorders that developed in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, anorexia and bulimia were thought to be rare and interesting conditions, but as public and professional awareness increased, many people began to seek help (Conterio et al., 1998). Despite an increasing awareness of adolescent self-injurious behavior, little is known about what treatments work best with this population (Zila & Kiselica, 2001).

The age at which people first begin to engage in self-cutting behaviors varies; however, these behaviors usually begin in middle adolescence (Herpertz, 1995), with the freshman year of high school being the average age of the first self-injurious behaviors (Ross & Heath, 2002; Favazza & Conterio, 1989). …

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