Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

Self-Injury, Gender, and Loneliness among College Students

Academic journal article Journal of College Counseling

Self-Injury, Gender, and Loneliness among College Students

Article excerpt

Several studies have demonstrated relationships between loneliness and numerous psychological and physical difficulties among college students. The purpose of this study was to examine whether loneliness might be a factor associated with increased risk of self-injury among college students. The findings did not support the hypothesis that self-injury would be associated with elevated levels of loneliness. The findings were significant but in the opposite direction than expected. Furthermore, the findings regarding gender are in contrast to findings of previous research.


Self-injurious behavior (SIB), or deliberately harming oneself without suicidal intent, is a phenomenon that clinicians in a variety of settings are likely to encounter. Rates of self-injury among inpatient populations appear quite high (Brodsky, Cloitre, & Dulit, 1995), and research suggests that a large percentage of undergraduates may be engaging hi this self-destructive behavior as well, with one study finding a lifetime prevalence rate of 38% (Gratz, Conrad, & Roemer, 2002). High prevalence rates among undergraduates could indicate that college counseling centers may be increasingly called upon to treat young adults presenting with this maladaptive behavior.

Given the significant number of young adults affected and the potentially negative ramifications of this behavior, more research investigating the etiology and correlates of self-injury among young adults is needed. Thus far, researchers have identified several correlates of self-injury, although it is unclear whether these factors are specific to any certain age group.

One correlate of self-injury is alexithymia (Paivio & McCulloch, 2004; Zlotnick et al., 1996), or the inability to speak about one's emotions. Alexithymia is thought to be a consequence of a deficit in emotional awareness, and researchers speculate that self-injury serves as a method of communication for such individuals. Physical separation from and emotional neglect by caregivers is also associated with SIB. Specifically, for male undergraduates, physical separation from their father during childhood was associated with greater risk for developing SIBs; however, only emotional neglect by mothers or fathers, and not physical separation, was predictive of self-injury among college women (Gratz et al., 2002). A third correlate of self-injury is greater impulsivity. Herpertz, Sass, and Favazza (1997) found that people who self-injure manifest more impulsive behaviors such as binge drinking, drug abuse, and acting in accordance with current wishes rather than planning for future needs. Their study also indicated that self-injury was associated with impaired serotonergic functioning in the brain, a condition that is often associated with difficulty inhibiting one's impulses.

A number of studies have linked dissociation and self-injury, and Suyemoto's (1998) review of the research indicates that self-injury can serve both to produce the experience of dissociation, as an escape from overwhelming and negative affect, and to bring an end to a dissociative state. In addition, several researchers have found that individuals who self-injure more frequently have histories of sexual abuse (Briere & Gil, 1998; Brown, Houch, Hadley, & Lescano, 2005; van der Kolk, Perry, & Herman, 1991; Zweig-Frank, Paris, & Guzder, 1994) and endorse more symptoms of psychopathology (Haines, Williams, & Brain, 1995; Klonsky, Oltmanns, & Turkheimer, 2003; Soloff, Lis, Kelly, Cornelius, & Ulrich, 1994) than do those who do not self-injure.

Although many correlates of self-injury have been identified, few studies have investigated factors that could be associated with self-injury specifically among college students. For example, research suggests that students often experience a time of isolation, loneliness (Berman & Sperling, 1991), and interpersonal upheaval (Larose & Boivin, 1998) as they transition from their home environment toward a more independent lifestyle. …

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