Coping Behaviors, Abuse History, and Counseling: Differentiating College Students Who Self-Injure

By Wester, Kelly L.; Trepal, Heather C. | Journal of College Counseling, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Coping Behaviors, Abuse History, and Counseling: Differentiating College Students Who Self-Injure


Wester, Kelly L., Trepal, Heather C., Journal of College Counseling


Nonsuicidal self-injury is an important concern that has received limited attention. In this study, the authors explored several factors differentiating three student groups: never self-injured, self-injured in the past, and currently self-injure. Among the factors investigated, results showed that currently self-injuring students were younger, less likely to use problem-focused coping behaviors, and substantially more likely to be in counseling. College counseling implications, effect sizes, and limitations are discussed.

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Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) is an increasingly important topic for mental health professionals, especially those working on college and university campuses. In fact, Walsh (2006) reported that the prevalence of NSSIs has increased by at least 150% in recent decades (1970-1990). Although the prevalence among college-age populations seems to be lower than that of clinical populations, it is higher than that of the U.S. general population (Briere & Gil, 1998; Clarkin, Widiger, Frances, Hurt, & Gilmore, 1983; Gratz, 2001; Murray, Wester, & Paladino, 2008). More specifically, various researchers have reported that at least 7% of college and university students currently were self-injuring (Murray et al., 2008), with up to 35% of students currently self-injuring or having a history of self-injury (Gratz, 2001). Some of these students matriculate with these behaviors already established (Jacobs Brumberg, 2006), whereas others begin self-injuring after arriving at college. Furthermore, although a few self-injuring students may be asked to leave their institutions as a result of the seriousness of their behaviors, most students who self-injure stay in college and persist through graduation (Jacobs Brumberg, 2006). Therefore, we believe in the importance of college counselors and other student services professionals having a strong working knowledge of NSSI behaviors to guide their interventions and responses to student needs. Unfortunately, only limited information is available in the extant college counseling literature concerning NSSIs and their correlates among campus populations. We begin to fill this gap by examining the relationship between NSSI behaviors, abuse history, coping behaviors, life satisfaction, and use of counseling services.

NSSI Behaviors

According to Simeon and Favazza's (2001) widely accepted definition, the term NSSI refers to an intentional physical act, against oneself, which causes immediate tissue damage, with no intention to die from the self-harming behavior. Some examples of NSSIs possibly existing within the college population are cutting one's skin, scratching oneself, burning one's skin, pulling out one's hair (i.e., trichotillomania), or hitting oneself.

NSSI behaviors tend to have an onset in the early teens to the mid-20s (Favazza & Conterio, 1988; Walsh, 2006), thus, around traditional college age. Although not much is known concerning the trajectory of self-injury, Whitlock, Powers, and Eckenrode (2006) indicated that 40% of their college sample stopped self-injuring within 1 year, whereas a total of 71% stopped self-injuring within 5 years. However, approximately 30% are continuing to use self-injury as a method of self-expression or coping after 5 years. This is concerning because approximately 30% will continue to self-injure throughout their college life, and an additional 30% will continue NSSI behavior after college. The concern relates to these individuals experiencing comorbid mental health disorders (e.g., Jacobson & Gould, 2007) and various difficulties they may experience when attending college (Bean, 1985; Eisenberg, Golberstein, & Gollust, 2007; Kelly, 2007).

When considering mental health concerns of students who self-injure, no formal mental health diagnosis exists for NSSI. However, researchers have identified many correlates, including the presence of diagnosable mental disorders such as depressive disorders, eating disorders, and borderline personality disorder (e. …

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