According to a recent study conducted by Karen Guan of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, nonsuicidal self-injurious (NSSI) behaviors may predict future suicide attempts, but no suicide gestures or threats of suicide. There is a large amount of research examining the levels of NSSI and other maladaptive behaviors among teens. During adolescence, teens are faced with numerous stressors such as bullying, academic concerns, and peer pressure. They are often first introduced to sex, drugs, and alcohol during their teen years. One way in which adolescents cope with the stress is to engage in cutting, burning, or self-mutilation. Although this is not seen as life-threatening, the risk of more harmful injury and further destructive behavior is very high. Some research has suggested that teens who engage in NSSI are at increased risk for suicide later, even though the NSSI is not intended to cause death. But very little research has looked at how NSSI behaviors influence future threats of suicide.
To address this void, Guan followed 399 teens for two and half years, starting when they entered their freshman year in high school, and assessed their levels of depression, NSSI behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicide gestures or threats. Guan discovered that the teens with high levels of NSSI at the beginning of the study were more likely to attempt or think about suicide than those with low levels of NSSI. However, they did not engage in higher levels of suicidal gestures or threats. Additionally, the results revealed that those with the most severe depressive symptoms also had the highest levels of NSSI. Guan believes that even though teens may begin using NSSI with no intention of taking their own lives, they may eventually become immune to the feelings they get and need more extreme measures to cope with their stress. They may also begin to fear death less as they injure themselves more. Guan added, “Overall, results offer empirical evidence for the importance of NSSI as a construct that has predictive value in assessing risk for adolescent suicide ideation and attempts.”
Guan, K., Fox, K. R., Prinstein, M. J. (2012). Nonsuicidal self-injury as a time-invariant predictor of adolescent suicide ideation and attempts in a diverse community sample. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029429
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