Nonsuicidal Self-Injury and Suicidal Risk: An Examination among Young Adults
Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI), which refers to the direct and deliberate destruction of bodily tissue in the absence of suicidal intent, is a serious and widespread mental health concern. Although NSSI has been differentiated from suicidal behavior on the basis of non-lethal intent, research has shown that these two behaviors commonly co-occur. Despite increased research on the link between NSSI and suicidal behavior, however, little attention has been given as to why these two behaviors are associated. My doctoral dissertation specifically addressed this gap in the literature by examining the link between NSSI and several measures of suicidal risk (e.g., suicidal ideation, suicidal attempts, pain tolerance) among a large sample of young adults. The primary goal of my doctoral research was to identify individuals who engaged in NSSI at risk for suicidal ideation and attempts, in an effort to elucidate the processes through which psychosocial risk, NSSI, and suicidal risk may be associated. Participants were drawn from a larger sample of 1153 undergraduate students (70.3% female) at a mid-sized Canadian University. In study one, I examined whether increases in psychosocial risk and suicidal ideation were associated with changes in NSSI engagement over a one year period. Analyses revealed that beginners, relapsed injurers, and persistent injurers were differentiated from recovered injurers and desisters by increases in psychsocial risk and suicidal ideation over time. In study two, I examined whether several NSSI characteristics (e.g., frequency, number of methods) were associated with suicidal risk using latent class analysis. Three subgroups of individuals were identified: 1) an infrequent NSSI/not high risk for suicidal behavior group, 2) a frequent NSSI/not high risk for suicidal behavior group, and 3) a frequent NSSI/high risk for suicidal behavior group. Follow-up analyses indicated that individuals in the frequent NSSI/high risk for suicidal behavior group met the clinical cutoff score for high suicidal risk and reported significantly greater levels of suicidal ideation, attempts, and risk for future suicidal behavior as compared to the other two classes. Class 3 was also differentiated by higher levels of psychosocial risk (e.g., depressive symptoms, social anxiety) relative to the other two classes, as well as a comparison group of non-injuring young adults. Finally, in study three, I examined whether NSSI was associated with pain tolerance in a lab-based task, as tolerance to pain has been shown to be a strong predictor of suicidal risk. Individuals who engaged in NSSI to regulate the need to self-punish, tolerated pain longer than individuals who engaged in NSSI but not to self-punish and a non-injuring comparison group. My findings offer new insight into the associations among psychosocial risk, NSSI, and suicidal risk, and can serve to inform intervention efforts aimed at individuals at high risk for suicidal behavior. More specifically, my findings provide clinicians with several NSSI-specific risk factors (e.g., frequent self-injury, self-injuring alone, self-injuring to self-punish) that may serve as important markers of suicidal risk among individuals engaging in NSSI.