Three out of 10 students surveyed for a York University study acknowledged engaging in acts of deliberate self-harm, such as skin cutting, burning and using drugs or alcohol to excess.
The study evaluates the responses of 319 first-year university students who volunteered to answer a questionnaire that assessed their personality and personal history, and that asked whether they had ever intentionally engaged in 22 self-harm behaviours.
Of the 94 students who indicated they had, women were no more likely to self-harm than men, contrary to previous studies which suggest it is a predominantly female phenomenon.
There were, however, some clear differences in the type of self-harm acts engaged in by women and men.
Right: Cutting is one form of self-harm as seen in this photo of a person’s arm
Among those who engaged in self-harm, the women surveyed (45 per cent) were more likely to report cutting the wrists, arms or other areas of the body, while men (23 per cent) were more likely to report engaging in gang activity or other forms of physical violence with the intention to harm themselves. The most frequent forms of self-harm were cutting, entering into risky situations, carving, scratching and the use of substances with the intent to self-harm.
The life circumstances of the participants are relevant to the study’s findings, says Gordon Flett, Canada Research Chair in Personality & Health at York, who co-authored the study with Abby Goldstein, (MA ’00, PhD ’05) now an assistant professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
The average age of the participants was 19 years old and the majority (68 per cent) had just finished high school and were living with their parents (64 per cent). The sample was evenly split between Canadian-born students and those born outside of Canada.
“In many cases, these young people are throwing themselves into the student role as a way of overcompensating for some other emotional and relationship issue,” Flett says. “If they do well in university, that might get them over the hump, but if they don’t, they may be at risk for some more extreme behaviours.”
The latest clinical research suggests that self-harm may be a response to emotional pain that cannot be resolved in a more functional way. Goldstein hopes this information will begin to remove some of the secrecy often associated with self-harm.
“These findings suggest that a significant percentage of college students have engaged in an act of deliberate self-harm at some point in their lifetime,” Goldstein says. “Unfortunately, many people hide these acts or their intentions from others, which can often lead to isolation and greater suffering.”
By assessing the personality traits and personal history of the participants, the study was also able to identify factors which may help predict which students may be vulnerable to deliberately harming themselves.
“Some of these kids come from middle-class or affluent families but that’s no protection when the issue at hand is self-image,” Flett says.
"Personality, Child Maltreatment and Substance Use in Deliberate Self-Harm Among College Students" will be published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science in October.
The study was supported by funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.