Why do adolescents engage in self-injury?

A new study from Örebro University, Sweden, shows that up to 20 per cent of high school adolescents, at one time or other, inflict self-injury. It is a clear indication that some youths are not coping very well with life. Psychology researcher Lauree Tilton-Weaver has in her latest study, published in Journal of Youth & Adolescence, focused on the link between depression and self-injury behaviour.

– Self-injury behaviour ranges from cutting or bruising yourself to preventing wounds from healing, says Lauree Tilton-Weaver at the Center for Developmental Research, CDR at Örebro University.

– 20 per cent seemed like a high figure to me, but international colleagues have confirmed that they find similar frequencies, says Lauree Tilton-Weaver.

Clear link

The study encompasses adolescents from seven different Swedish high schools and the aim has been to identify youths who intentionally cause injury to their own bodies. Over a two-year period, the study has followed up on the participants on three separate occasions.

The researchers, Lauree Tilton-Weaver, Sheila Marshall (University of British Columbia) and Håkan Stattin, were interested in the relationship between depressive symptoms and self-injury behaviour. Prior research showed a clear link between the two, but it wasn't clear whether feeling depressed led to self-injury or the other way around.

– The study shows that in the Swedish sample of youth depressive symptoms preceded the self-injury behaviour. Adolescents suffering from depression may find relief from their intensive emotions by hurting themselves. Although this sounds counter-intuitive, experiencing physical pain has been known to reduce emotional pain.

Physical and emotional pain

The link between physical and emotional pain is strong but self-injury behaviour is still nothing more than a dead-end street. The risk is that the perceived relief does not last for very long and the self-injury behaviour becomes a way of coping with the pressures of everyday life and therefore something that you keep coming back to.

– There are many questions that remain unanswered and we will continue to look into for instance what triggers the self-injury behaviour. Follow-ups with shorter intervals would also be desirable in order to get a clearer picture.

– This is unquestionably something that many adolescents are affected by and it is therefore important to investigate this more that we are able to find ways to help them, says Lauree Tilton-Weaver.

Text: Linda Harradine
Foto: Private