Background: Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI), which involves self-damaging behavior (e.g., cutting) causes tissue damage and places people at elevated risk for future suicidal behaviors. Yet few specific treatments for NSSI currently exist. Extreme self-criticism is implicated in the development and maintenance of NSSI. We conducted a randomized controlled trial to evaluate Autobiographical Self-Enhancement Training (ASET), a novel, cognitive intervention for NSSI focused on reducing self-criticism and enhancing positive self-worth. We also examined whether Expressive Writing (EW) was a helpful treatment for NSSI.
Method: Participants (N = 144) who had engaged in NSSI at least twice in the past month were recruited online and then randomly assigned via Qualtrics to receive the ASET intervention (N = 49), the EW intervention (N = 49), or Daily Journaling [JNL; N = 46]), an active comparison condition. Treatments were designed as month-long daily diaries. Participants in ASET wrote about something that made them feel good about themselves that day, participants in EW described something that had been on their mind that day, and participants in JNL reported on the events of the day in a factually descriptive manner without emotional content.
Results: Intent-to-treat analyses revealed that, regardless of treatment group, participants showed significant reductions in self-criticism, NSSI episodes, depression, and suicide ideation from baseline to the end of active treatment. Relative to the JNL group, the ASET group reported significantly less self-criticism at post-treatment; this was not maintained at follow-up. There was also a trend toward ASET being associated with less suicide ideation at the end of treatment compared to EW. This difference was significant at the 3-month follow-up. Unexpectedly, the JNL group reported significantly less suicide ideation than the EW group at post-treatment; this was maintained at 3-month follow-up. No significant treatment effects were detected for suicide plans, suicidal behaviors, desire to discontinue NSSI, or likelihood of future NSSI.
Conclusion: Self-criticism is an important treatment target in NSSI, but changing self-criticism in people with an established history of NSSI presents challenges. Nonetheless, all approaches provided benefits. This study also established the feasibility of inexpensive and easily disseminated treatments for NSSI.
Trial registration number: ISRCTN12276176 (retrospectively registered, March 13, 2018).
Keywords: Depression; Expressive writing; Self-criticism; Suicide.