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Self -injurious behavior in university undergraduate students

Alyssa Rulf Fountain, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Self-injurious behavior (SIB) is a disorder that is typically associated with clinical syndromes, genetic diseases, or mental retardation. However, recent studies indicate that SIB can develop in the general population and may be more prevalent than previously reported. The purpose of this dissertation was to identify psychological, experiential and physiological correlates of SIB in university undergraduate students. Prior to formal data collection, we prescreened potential participants by collecting information on self-injurious behavior from a large number of undergraduate students enrolled in psychology classes. The prescreening revealed that 16% of the students had engaged in self-inflicted wounding at some point in their lives. Men were more likely to burn themselves whereas women preferred cutting. These findings were replicated in a second screening. Subsequent research was focused on a subset of the prescreen population. In Study 1, a questionnaire was used to gathered baseline information on mental health and life histories of undergraduates who engaged in SIB (n = 24) as well as non-injuring undergraduate controls (n = 25). The stress hormone, cortisol, was also examined by collecting saliva samples under baseline conditions and assaying for cortisol levels. Our findings revealed that undergraduates with a history of SIB had significantly more psychological problems (e.g. depression, anxiety, emotional problems, and traumatic experiences) than controls. Preliminary evidence suggested that cortisol level might be a significant predictor of SIB status. In Study 2, a similar questionnaire was administered to 91 undergraduate participants as phase I of the study. In phase 2, a subset of undergraduates was exposed to a modified Trier Stress Test (i.e. public speaking and mental arithmetic tasks) to examine the stress response system. Questionnaire results from Study 2 confirmed our previous findings. Participants who engaged in SIB were significantly more depressed and anxious, and had experienced more emotional problems, and traumatic experiences than controls. However, SIB status was unrelated to baseline cortisol, and there were no group differences in reaction to the stress test. These findings indicate that self-injurious behavior is present at significant levels in college students and is strongly associated with psychological problems.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Rulf Fountain, Alyssa, "Self -injurious behavior in university undergraduate students" (2001). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3000339.