Deliberate self-harm in a nonclinical population: prevalence and psychological correlates

Am J Psychiatry. 2003 Aug;160(8):1501-8. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.160.8.1501.


Objective: Research on deliberate self-harm (intentionally injuring oneself without suicidal intent) has focused on clinical and forensic populations. Studying only these populations, which typically have serious psychopathology, may lead to inflated estimates of the association between self-harm and psychiatric disorder, as well as of the prevalence of deliberate self-harm. The present study investigated the prevalence and correlates of deliberate self-harm in a large group of nonclinical subjects.

Method: Participants were 1,986 military recruits, 62% of whom were men, who were participating in a study of peer assessment of personality traits and pathology. Individuals who did and did not report a history of self-harm were compared on measures of personality and psychopathology.

Results: Approximately 4% of the participants reported a history of deliberate self-harm. Compared with participants without a history of deliberate self-harm, self-harmers scored higher on self- and peer-report measures of borderline, schizotypal, dependent, and avoidant personality disorder symptoms and reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression. Item-level analyses indicated that peers viewed self-harmers as having strange and intense emotions and a heightened sensitivity to interpersonal rejection.

Conclusions: About one of every 25 members of a large group of relatively high-functioning nonclinical subjects reported a history of self-harm. Self-harmers had more symptoms of several personality disorders than non-self-harmers, and their performance across measures suggested that anxiety plays a prominent role in their psychopathology. Future research should investigate whether psychotherapies or psychiatric medications known to reduce symptoms of anxiety can be effective in treating deliberate self-harm.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety Disorders / diagnosis
  • Anxiety Disorders / epidemiology
  • Comorbidity
  • Depressive Disorder / diagnosis
  • Depressive Disorder / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Male
  • Military Personnel / psychology
  • Military Personnel / statistics & numerical data*
  • Peer Group
  • Personality Disorders / diagnosis
  • Personality Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Personality Disorders / psychology
  • Personality Inventory / statistics & numerical data
  • Prevalence
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / diagnosis
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / epidemiology*
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / psychology
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Perception
  • United States / epidemiology