Is one incident of self-injury cause for alarm?

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Nicola Pytell

"An incident of self-destructive behavior can be a harbinger of distress," says Cornell researcher Janis Whitlock. "Our results suggest that a single-incident SIB [self-injurious behavior] episode is not like drinking too much once. While an individual may decide that SIB is not something that works well to assuage psychological discomfort, our results suggest that it may be an important symptom of distress likely to be expressed in other unhealthy or even lethal ways. This makes it an adequate reason for intervention."

People who injure themselves are not attempting to commit suicide, say Cornell researchers. Rather, many youths tend to use the practice to cope with emotional pain, numbness and isolation. They could also be seeking the palliative effect of natural painkillers, called endorphins, which the body releases in response to the pain of self-injury.

"The underlying motivation for self-injury is not to get high, but really as a behavior to cope with stress," says Professor John Eckenrode. "It's self-medicating; it creates a palpable calm -- that's what makes it potentially addicting," he said.

"The fact that we are encountering significant levels of SIBs in seemingly healthy young people is of great concern," adds Whitlock. "The majority of those we surveyed are functioning well enough on a day-to-day basis to avoid detection and formal treatment, but that doesn't mean they are coping well. There are clearly a significant number of young people in our communities who are struggling with serious psychological issues, and many of them are struggling alone."

These sentiments are echoed by university mental health professionals around the country. "During the past few years, the University of California (UC)-Davis, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) staff has treated an increasing number of students who cut, scratch, pull their hair or in other ways harm themselves," says Emil Rodolfa, director of CAPS at UC-Davis.

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