Little is known about the bio-behavioral mechanisms underlying and differentiating suicide attempts from non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) in adolescents. Adolescents who attempt suicide or engage in NSSI often report significant interpersonal and social difficulties. Emotional face recognition ability is a fundamental skill required for successful social interactions, and deficits in this ability may provide insight into the unique brain-behavior interactions underlying suicide attempts versus NSSI in adolescents. Therefore, we examined emotional face recognition ability among three mutually exclusive groups: (1) inpatient adolescents who attempted suicide (SA, n = 30); (2) inpatient adolescents engaged in NSSI (NSSI, n = 30); and (3) typically developing controls (TDC, n = 30) without psychiatric illness. Participants included adolescents aged 13-17 years, matched on age, gender and full-scale IQ. Emotional face recognition was evaluated using the diagnostic assessment of nonverbal accuracy (DANVA-2). Compared to TDC youth, adolescents with NSSI made more errors on child fearful and adult sad face recognition while controlling for psychopathology and medication status (ps < 0.05). No differences were found on emotional face recognition between NSSI and SA groups. Secondary analyses showed that compared to inpatients without major depression, those with major depression made fewer errors on adult sad face recognition even when controlling for group status (p < 0.05). Further, compared to inpatients without generalized anxiety, those with generalized anxiety made fewer recognition errors on adult happy faces even when controlling for group status (p < 0.05). Adolescent inpatients engaged in NSSI showed greater deficits in emotional face recognition than TDC, but not inpatient adolescents who attempted suicide. Further results suggest the importance of psychopathology in emotional face recognition. Replication of these preliminary results and examination of the role of context-dependent emotional processing are needed moving forward.
Keywords: Adolescent; Emotional face processing; Emotions; Non-suicidal self-injury; Self-injurious behavior; Suicide.