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Many College Students have Self-Injured

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Updated June 07, 2006

A June 2006 study at Cornell University found that seventeen percent of college students report having cut, burned, carved or harmed themselves in other ways. Fewer than 7 percent of the students reported seeking medical help for their self-inflicted injuries.

Twenty percent of women and 14 percent of men reported that they have "cut, burned, carved or harmed themselves in other ways." The study is reportedly the largest study on self-injury in the United States to date, with 8300 students at Cornell and Princeton Universities invited to participate. 37 of those invited actually participated.

Professionals working with adolescents and young adults report strong increases in self-injury in recent years. The study's lead author, Janis Whitlock, is quoted in a research press release as stating that "Our findings are entirely consistent with nationally representative research in the United Kingdom and with smaller studies in the United States and Canada, which show self-injury to be a widespread phenomenon among adolescents and young adults. There is virtually universal consensus among college and secondary-school mental health providers that many psychological disorders, including SIB, have increased significantly in the past five years."

The researchers found some other trends in their data:

  • Self-injurers were more likely to be bisexual or to question their sexual orientation.
  • Self-injurers were more likely to be female (55 percent) and less likely to be Asian or Asian-American.
  • Three-quarters of the self-injurers had engaged in the practice more than once, and 70 percent of that group reported using multiple methods to hurt themselves. The most common methods reported by both young men and women were scratching to the point of bleeding, cutting or punching with the intent of causing injury.
  • Self injurers were more likely to have considered or attempted suicide; more likely to report a history of emotional abuse; more likely to report high levels of recent psychological distress; and more likely to report characteristics of an eating disorder.

The average age of the first incident of self-injury was between 14 and 15 years, but almost half of the self-injurers started between the ages of 17 and 22. Most self-injurers did not seek help from medical or mental health professionals. While 20 reported that they had injured themselves more severely than they intended on at least one occasion, fewer than 7 percent had ever sought medical help for their physical injuries.

Self-injury is often seen as a "coping technique" that helps an adolescent or young adult relieve stress and regain some control over a situation. It's a technique that creates it's own set of problems. As we become more aware of the scope of this problem we may begin to find solutions.

Source: Pytel, Nicola. "Self-Injury Is Prevalent Among College Students" Cornell University Research Press Release, June 2006; summarizing Whitlock, J., Eckenrode, J. & Silverman, D. "Self-injurious Behaviors in a College Population" Pediatrics Vol. 117 No. 6 (June 2006) 1939-1948.

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