A cross-sectional study of adolescent non-suicidal self-injury: Support for a specific distress-function relationship

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Background: This study has investigated the specific relationship between childhood adversities, individual trauma symptoms and the functions of non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). The aim was to examine whether different self-reported adverse experiences and trauma symptoms predict the need to engage in NSSI, either to regulate emotions or to communicate with and influence others.Method: The participants were a community sample of 816 adolescents aged 15-17 years with NSSI. Hierarchical multiple regression was used, controlling for NSSI frequency and gender. The dependent variables were the automatic and social functions of NSSI, respectively. The predictors entered in the model were several different maltreatment and adversity experiences as well as individual trauma symptoms. Mediation analyses were also performed using the bootstrapping method with bias-corrected confidence estimates.Results: Frequency of NSSI, gender (female), emotional abuse, prolonged illness or handicap during upbringing and symptoms of depression uniquely predicted the automatic functions of NSSI in the final regression model, but not the social functions. Symptoms of anxiety uniquely predicted social but not automatic functions. Having experienced physical abuse, having made a suicide attempt and symptoms of dissociation were significant predictors in both final models. The model for automatic functions explained more of the variance (62%) than the social model (28%). The relationship between childhood emotional, physical and sexual abuse and performing NSSI for automatic reasons was mediated by symptoms of depression and dissociation. The relationship between physical abuse and the social functions of NSSI was mediated by symptoms of anxiety and dissociation.Conclusions: It is important to understand the specific context in which NSSI has developed and is maintained. Experiences of emotional abuse and symptoms of depression could guide clinical work in the direction of emotion regulation skills since in this study these variables were uniquely associated with the need to engage in NSSI to regulate emotions, to self-punish or to generate feelings. The presence of physical abuse, a suicide attempt and symptoms of dissociation could alert clinicians to a broad treatment approach since they were associated with performing NSSI to regulate both social and automatic experiences.




Zetterqvist, M., Lundh, L. G., & Svedin, C. G. (2014). A cross-sectional study of adolescent non-suicidal self-injury: Support for a specific distress-function relationship. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 8(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1753-2000-8-23

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