Self-Injury Increases on College Campuses


Published: May 1, 2008

“I was a cutter from my senior [year in high school] until the middle of last year. I know a few people here who also cut, but will not seek help… People feel like, to relieve pressure, they [have to] cut themselves,” said a Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) sophomore who declined to be identified.

Cutting has become increasingly prevalent among college students, said Amelio D’Onofrio, director of the FCLC Psychological Services Institute and the author of a book about adolescent self-injury.  D’Onofrio said that greater public awareness in regard to self-injury may play a role in the number of college students who report self-injuring.

Opinions vary on the reason for the increase in the number of students who self-injure, with experts citing everything from increased media attention to greater pressure for students to succeed as contributing factors.  Compounding the issue of cutting on college campuses is the fact that cutting, according to D’Onofrio, is “absolutely contagious” and has been known to spread through groups of friends or through students in campus residence halls like a trend.

A researcher in a 2006 Cornell University study cited by Science Daily stated that “there is virtually universal consensus among college and secondary school mental health providers that many psychological disorders, including [self-injury], have increased significantly in the past five years.”  The study estimates that 25 percent of college students have cut themselves.

According to D’Onofrio and other experts, individuals who self-injure do so to relieve stress and emotional pain.  Some feel that the increase in the number of college-age individuals who cut is attributable to the amplified level of stress placed upon today’s college students.

Christine Graham, FCLC ’10, agreed, stating, “We’re all expected to push ourselves above and beyond. Grades aren’t enough anymore, and the additional achievements required of undergraduates might be stressing people out or making them feel inadequate, even when they’re performing at a very high capacity,” she said.

Kella Birch, FCLC ’10, said about a friend who used to cut, “[She] was a perfectionist, and when things started to go awry in her life, she couldn’t face it… she pressured herself to appear perfect, and because she never allowed herself to admit that something was wrong, she released her tension by cutting. She finally told my friends and me about two years after she had stopped… we had never previously noticed because she apparently had cut on her inner thighs.”

“Self-injurers do it when they are feeling depressed, anxious…or overwhelmed,” said D’Onofrio. “Individuals who self-injure sometimes report feeling numb…and dissassociated from their emotions. The act of self-injury jolts them back to reality.  It is a way to soothe themselves,” D’Onofrio said, also stating that a sense of relief often accompanies the act of self-injury.

The “provocative” nature of self-injury makes it a way for “disconnected” individuals to acquire a sense of identity, said D’Onofrio. “It’s a way to get attention and nurturance from friends,” he stated.

Birch said about another friend who used to cut, “She desperately wanted to be paid attention to. She showed our entire group of friends the cuts on her upper arms, thinking that it would just warrant our sympathy and that she would be the center of attention. But when we actually called her parents and they confronted her about it, she freaked… Basically, she wanted the attention but not any sort of confrontation or medical help.”

According to D’Onofrio, cutting is not only a way to seek attention, but it often also becomes a method for groups of friends to compete for social status. “I have seen individuals where there is…social status determined by who can cut more deeply,” said D’Onofrio, who has a private psychotherapy practice. “I saw three girls who were cutters,” D’Onofrio continued. “They all made a pact to stop cutting, but if one relapsed, the others would relapse also to be supportive,” he recalled.

D’Onofrio compared the contagion factor of cutting to that of eating disorders, where “you have entire suites of women who develop [anorexia].”  D’Onofrio stated that he classifies eating disorders as a form of self-injury and that “there is a high correlation between individuals who cut and those who have eating disorders.”

Other forms of self-injury, according to D’Onofrio, include drug and/or alcohol abuse, burning oneself or ingesting toxic chemicals. “Oftentimes, the individuals who are cutting are involved in lots of other self-destructive behaviors,” said D’Onofrio.  “The function of cutting is to regulate one’s emotional state…and to relieve anxiety.  Individuals who use a lot of drugs and alcohol also do so to regulate their emotional states.”

Traditionally, cutting was more common in females than in males. Experts disagree on whether this is attributable to females’ greater willingness to seek help or to a larger number of females who cut in general.  “Traditionally, [self-injury] has been linked to women and girls because of socio-cultural factors…and because women tend to internalize their distress more,” D’Onofrio said.

Recent studies indicate, however, that the rates of males versus females who self-injure are now almost equal.  “A positive trend in our culture is that we are now giving men messages that it is okay to talk about their feelings and to come forward,” D’Onofrio said.

Some blame the increase in students who self-injure on the augmented exposure given to self-injury in the media: movies such as “Thirteen” feature characters who cut, and celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci have spoken openly about cutting themselves.  Researchers from Columbia University cited a study indicating that media attention has been proven to increase rates of cutting in young people.  D’Onofrio, however, said he feels that celebrities speaking out about self-injury could help lessen the shame of cutting and encourage self-injurers to seek help.

Individuals who cut have almost always experienced some sort of childhood trauma, D’Onofrio said. “[Self-injurers] don’t have rearing environments where they can have healthy attachments, and they don’t develop the resources to self-soothe or to [confide in others].”

D’Onofrio cited the children of absentee parents and the children of drug or alcohol abusers as an example.  “Individuals whose early-life relationships were conflictual learn that they can’t go to another person for soothing,” he said.  Cutting is also more common among those who were abused sexually, emotionally or physically, D’Onofrio stated.

Obviously, not everyone who is diagnosed with depression or an anxiety disorder, or who was abused, cuts him- or herself.  So what determines who cuts and who doesn’t?  D’Onofrio said that some experts believe that there is a biological difference: a “heightened tolerance for pain and a heightened indogenous response in certain individuals”—meaning, the brain chemistry of some cutters is different than in other people in that feel-good chemicals are released upon the act of self-injury, creating a “high” for cutters.

D’Onofrio feels that many students have already begun cutting by the time they enter college and that “the stress of the college transition can contribute to a relapse.” D’Onofrio also stated that individuals who cut do so because they don’t have the skills to cope with change and stress, and that the tumult of going to college can be a trigger.

Sarah Landew, staff psychologist in the FCLC counseling center, said, “I would encourage students to seek help if they are self injuring in any way, as therapy can help them to begin to understand it and to find alternative ways of coping with their emotions.”