Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) has become more prevalent in youth over recent years and has many inherent risks. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), NSSI is a diagnosis suggested for further study, and criteria include engaging in self-injury for 5 or more days without suicidal intent as well as self-injury associated with at least 1 of the following: obtaining relief from negative thoughts or feelings, resolving interpersonal challenges, inducing positive feelings. It is associated with interpersonal difficulties or negative thoughts/feelings. The behavior causes significant impairment in functioning and is not better explained by another condition.1
Estimates of lifetime prevalence in community-based samples of youth range from 15% to 20%. Individuals often start during early adolescence. It can pose many risks including infection, permanent scarring or disfigurement, decreased self-esteem, interpersonal conflict, severe injury, or death. Reasons for engaging in self-harm can vary and include attempts to regulate negative affect, to manage feelings of emptiness/numbness, regain a sense of control over body, feelings, etc., or to provide a consequence for perceived faults. Youth often may start to engage in self-harm covertly, and it may first become apparent in emergency or primary care settings. However, upon discovery, the response given also may affect future behavior.
Efforts also have been underway to distinguish between youth who engage in self-harm with and without suicidal ideation. Girls are more likely than are boys to report NSSI, although male NSSI may present differently. In addition to cutting or more stereotypical self-injury, they may punch walls or engage in fights or other risky behaviors as a proxy for self-harm. Risk factors for boys with regard to suicide attempts include hopelessness and history of sexual abuse. Maladaptive eating patterns and hopelessness were the two most significant factors for girls.4
With regard to issues of confidentiality, it will be important to carefully gauge level of safety and to clearly communicate with the patient (and family) limits of confidentiality. This may result in working within shades of gray to help maintain the therapeutic relationship and the patient’s comfort in being able to disclose potentially sensitive information.
Families can struggle with how to manage this, and it can generate fear as well as other strong emotions.