African American boys at risk for self harm, study shows

Published: May. 10, 2012 at 9:10 PM CDT|Updated: May. 25, 2012 at 7:06 PM CDT
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JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) - One of the most recent studies on self-harm has uncovered not only new information about adolescents, but also surprising data on African American boys.

"Based on what people once thought about this, we might have thought that white youth and in particular white girls, would be more likely to engage in this behavior. We never would have expected that African American boys were at such high risk," said study author Dr. Kim Gratz.

The University of Mississippi Medical Center psychologist analyzed information from six middle and high schools in Mississippi with diverse populations. The sampling is considered significant because it is large.

Previous studies indicate self harm methods, such as cutting, burning and biting are more common among white adolescent girls, but Dr. Gratz say this study found what no one expected.

Across the board, it is most common among African American boys. "They reported higher rates of most of the self harm behaviors than the other groups of students. They had higher rates of severe scratching, self biting, punching but they also did in fact have the highest rates of cutting along with white girls. They had higher rates of most of the behaviors."

While African American boys are most likely to the harm themselves, the study finds a disturbing trend among all adolescents. "39 percent of these students reported engaging in this behavior, so as much as people often keep the behavior hidden or don't talk about it or fear disclosing it, it's happening," Dr. Gratz said.

This study also found a link between self harm and borderline personality features. People with those tendencies have a difficult time managing emotions.

Dr. Gratz says those behaviors should raise a caution flag for parents. "These folks are more impulsive. They might have higher rates of substance use or risky sexual behavior or eating disorders and one of the thing that goes along with that is self harm. Because the behavior in the moment serves to help people manage distress."

"We think a lot of those vulnerabilities having these intense emotions, not knowing how to manage them, likely precedes the self harm."

Dr. Gratz says self harm is a coping strategy to instantly relieve emotional stress and pain. So parents need to be aware of the timing of the behavior.

"Self harm generally starts in early adolescence and we don't think that's a coincidence. It's dealing with a time when emotions are getting more intense and life is getting more stressful."

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