As professional counselors, we enter this field with a desire to understand and help others. There comes a time in every counselor’s career, however, when intellectual understanding is overpowered by the need for empathic understanding. This is particularly true when counselors work with clients who intentionally cut, burn, scratch, hit or otherwise injure themselves.
Jennifer Muehlenkamp and colleagues found that this coping skill, known as nonsuicidal self-injury (SI), may be used by as much as 18 percent of the general population. Furthermore, Laurie Craigen and colleagues found that as many as 39 percent of adolescents may self-injure. It is important to note that SI is separate from socially sanctioned body modification practices (e.g., piercings, tattoos), substance use or physical fighting, which can also seem intentionally harmful but have different underlying purposes.
Purpose of SI
For those who do not purposefully inflict physical harm on themselves, the concept of SI can be both foreign and confusing. As counselors, we need to know that SI works for some people, most often to help them manage intense and often painful emotions. In fact, David Klonsky, a pioneer in SI research, found that emotion regulation is the single most common function of SI. Emotional pain is linked with physiological arousal (e.g., pounding heart, headache), and SI can ease this tension, channel the pain and bring arousal to a bearable level.
Researchers such as Klonsky, Muehlenkamp, Janis Whitlock, Brianna Turner, Alexander Chapman and Brianne Layden have also examined other functions of SI. For example, SI can serve as a method for transforming emotional pain into physical pain, which can be easier to cope with for many people. SI can serve as a way to validate feelings and create a visual representation of the pain within them. Some people who self-injure may do so to cope with feelings of dissociation or depersonalization — to help themselves feel “real” or “alive” again. This is especially relevant for people who feel numb because of depression or trauma. SI can be used to vent anger privately or to channel anger toward the self as a form of punishment.
Finally, although less common, SI can serve as a means of communicating with or influencing others. Despite popular stereotypes, SI is rarely meant to be intentionally manipulative. Most often, clients who self-injure for this reason do so because they do not know more effective ways of communicating their needs and distress. In fact, the majority of clients who self-injure do so in private and are very secretive about it. Admittedly, some people self-injure to either intentionally or unintentionally influence others, but this is not the primary motivation for most clients. Consequently, assuming malicious intent behind SI can be grossly invalidating to clients’ experiences and can severely damage the therapeutic relationship.
Although the motivations for SI are complex and unique for every individual, the lay community has often equated SI with suicide. Whitlock and colleagues found that as many as 60 percent of people who self-injure may experience suicidal thoughts or behaviors. Although SI is a strong predictor of suicide, a large portion of people who self-injure do not struggle with suicide.
Several differences exist between SI and suicide regarding intent, means, frequency, severity, and emotional antecedents and consequences. Researchers such as Chapman and Katherine Dixon-Gordon have found that the emotions experienced prior to and following SI and suicide attempts are largely different. Furthermore, Muehlenkamp and Peter Gutierrez found that people who self-injure are often able to identify more reasons for living than are people who are suicidal. In fact, for some people, SI may serve an anti-suicidal function that is life preserving.
Counselors working with clients who self-injure are likely to encounter some ethical dilemmas regarding safety concerns and duty to warn/protect. With that in mind, we want to discuss some ways for counselors to address common ethical concerns that tend to emerge in this type of work. This list is not comprehensive, however, so counselors should use an established ethical decision-making model and consult or seek supervision as necessary.
Although counselors are trained to nonjudgmentally join with their clients, counselors may have intense reactions to SI. Doreen Fleet and Rita Mintz found that shock, sadness, anger, anxiety, frustration and diminished professional self-confidence are common responses to SI.
It is important to remember that the therapeutic relationship can be damaged beyond repair if clients feel judged. Even if counselors temper their initial reactions and support clients who self-injure, other counselor values can be damaging to the client and the therapeutic relationship. For example, it is unhelpful to assume that every client who uses SI needs to be hospitalized. We will discuss safety assessment later in this article, but counselors should remember that SI and suicidality are not equivalent.
Some counselors might feel that a contract specifying no SI would encourage clients to use healthier coping skills, but that can stem from a counselor’s anxiety surrounding the behavior and can lead to clients feeling judged by the one person who is supposed to be nonjudgmental. Moreover, SI works as a coping skill for some clients, and asking them to give up their most effective coping skill in the absence of other ways of coping can leave them feeling scared and helpless. In addition, nonharming alternative behaviors (e.g., snapping a rubber band, using a red water-soluble marker) may reduce risk, but they are not effective ways of addressing the underlying mental health issues.
Out of concern, some counselors may lecture clients on the dangers of SI and the fear that SI evokes for loved ones. Although psychoeducation can be used very effectively with clients who self-injure (e.g., dangers and wound care), there is a fine line between psychoeducation and lecturing. Many people who use SI experience self-imposed shame and guilt or have it imposed on them by others. Consequently, lecturing clients on the consequences of SI or otherwise attempting to convince clients not to self-injure can be harmful.
Similarly, chastising clients for doing permanent damage to their bodies is also unhelpful because SI is commonly a way for some people to connect with their bodies and find physical and emotional relief. It can also be unhelpful to insist on seeing a client’s wounds. If the client would like to show you his or her wounds, that can be therapeutic in itself. However, we are not medical doctors, and we should refer physical assessments to someone who is properly trained.
Overall, counselors should work toward empathic understanding of SI and reduce stereotypes or countertransference in the relationship. Working with clients who self-injure presents unique considerations for clinicians, who must manage their own reactions and beliefs about SI while simultaneously providing sound therapeutic care. Supervision, consultation and treatment teams are key sources of support and monitoring when working with these clients.
The issue of confidentiality can be complicated when working with clients who self-injure, especially if those clients are minors. Confidentiality and privacy should be explained clearly in informed consent, which is an ongoing process.
At intake, or when SI is disclosed, counselors should explain techniques and interventions that will be used specifically to address SI. Counselors should also be very clear about the duty to protect and how SI might lead to mandated reporting, such as if the client develops suicidal intentions or if SI results in a major health risk (e.g., large, infected wounds).
If the client is a minor and caregivers are aware of the SI, an open discussion should occur to determine what types of information will be shared (e.g., types of interventions, progress toward goals) and how this will be shared with caregivers (e.g., privately over the phone, after session with the client present). If the caregivers of a minor are not aware that the client is using SI, counselors might need to disclose this information to parents because of the possibility of foreseeable harm. Again, however, it is important for the client to feel empowered throughout the treatment process, especially when the counselor must notify parents or loved ones.
Foreseeable harm and safety planning
Although it is important to temper counselor anxiety and methodically work through the counseling process with clients who self-injure, it is also important to actively monitor and continually assess client suicide risk. Clients sometimes minimize their use of SI, and counselors must astutely tune in to the serious nature of this behavior, understand the possibility of increased harm in the future and put adequate interventions in place.
Relatedly, clients might disclose SI before they are ready to work toward goals related to the behavior. Counselors must explore the paradox between autonomy and nonmaleficence, constantly assessing for the point at which risk outweighs the client’s readiness to change. As mentioned previously, it is generally not helpful to ask clients to stop self-injuring in the absence of other effective coping skills. So, part of this process typically involves diminishing risk while simultaneously enhancing the client’s other strengths and coping skills.
Ongoing formal and informal suicide assessment should be part of the therapeutic process. However, it is critical that counselors do this in a way that is neither assumptive nor judgmental. It is also helpful to develop a safety plan with all clients who self-injure. Clients can
use the safety plan during times of distress, regardless of whether suicidal ideation is present. A major component of providing care to clients who self-injure involves the counselor’s efforts to ensure the appropriateness of services through consistent consultation, supervision and referrals.
Assessment of SI and suicide
Assessment of SI begins at intake. We believe it is important to ask all new clients about their history of intentional SI. There are a number of assessment instruments for SI, some of which screen for SI, some that monitor risk of suicide and some that assess the functions of SI. Examples include Kim Gratz’s Deliberate Self-Harm Inventory, Matthew Nock and colleagues’ Self-Injurious Thoughts and Behaviors Interview, Marsha Linehan and colleagues’ Suicide Attempt Self-Injury Interview, and Catherine Glenn and David Klonsky’s Inventory of Statements About Self-Injury. As is the case with any therapeutic issue, counselors should document their use of established assessment instruments, consultation or supervision, and a reputable decision-making model to uphold proper standards of care.
In consideration of the elevated risk of suicide and the sometimes conflicting feelings about life and living that some clients who self-injure may experience, it is important for professional counselors to use recursive suicide risk assessment practices. Without assuming that clients who self-injure are suicidal, counselors should conduct suicide risk assessments at intake, at periodic intervals and as indicated throughout the therapeutic relationship. Counselors should remember that suicide risk assessment involves more than asking a quick close-ended question. Rather, it should involve use of a reliable and valid instrument and should include dynamic, ongoing discussions about stress, coping and ideas about living.
When working with clients who self-injure, we ask counselors to remain attuned to the risk factors and warning signs of suicide so that they can respond most appropriately if risk elevates. Safety plans (as opposed to no-harm contracts) are an effective way to build the counseling relationship and minimize client risk. At a minimum, safety plans include identification of warning signs, internal coping strategies, positive distractions, people to ask for help, professionals/agencies to ask for help and ways to make the environment safer.
As professional counselors, we are charged with practicing only within the boundaries of our competence based on education, training, supervised experience, state and national professional credentials, and appropriate professional experience. However, clients who self-injure usually present with multiple treatment issues that are complicated for both novice and seasoned clinicians to conceptualize.
Clients who self-injure often have trauma and abuse histories. Consequently, they can also struggle with eating disorders, poor body image, personality disorders, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Because clients who self-injure may present with complex symptomatology and even acute distress, counselors may doubt their clinical competence and ability to meet the therapeutic demands of this client population.
Efforts to improve feelings of competence can be addressed in a variety of ways. First, we can encourage counselors to remember that the best way to understand clients’ lived experiences is to create a safe context in which clients feel free to share their stories. Counselors can promote clients’ sense of safety by exhibiting humanistic qualities such as unconditional positive regard, which can both strengthen the therapeutic relationship and convey understanding and acceptance of the client.
Next, counselors engaging in ongoing supervision and consultation can improve their clinical skills related to working with this population. Discussing clients who self-injure, in supervision or consultation contexts, provides counselors with new and different perspectives on their work, which can help them modify their treatment planning and clinical interventions. Consultation and supervision also offer counselors opportunities to reflect on how they feel toward their clients. Considering how strongly our value systems shape our work with clients, this is an invaluable exercise.
It is also imperative that counselors who work with this population review the existing literature on SI, seek continuing education on SI and remain current on emerging SI research. Competent counselors should practice treatment strategies that are evidence based and well-grounded in the literature, and access reputable resources, such as those stemming from the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury.
Finally, in situations in which clients are not progressing or a therapeutic impasse cannot be resolved, competent counselors should understand how and when to refer to another provider. Often, when counselors are unable to promote a strong therapeutic alliance or further treatment goals, it is the result of a lack of training or experience that can be remedied through additional training, supervision and consultation.
SI is a complex treatment issue and, for obvious reasons, counselors may feel ill-equipped to effectively intervene when clients self-injure. However, just like with any treatment issue, effective intervention begins with having a safe and nonjudgmental relationship. This is not to say that knowing the complexities of SI and how to intervene appropriately are unimportant. Rather, we hope readers will remember to start with the relationship and use interventions and treatment strategies that are grounded in the literature.
In the next section, we provide a brief introduction to a few therapeutic strategies that have shown promise with clients who self-injure. It is important to note, however, that no specific treatment interventions have proved largely effective for the treatment of SI. So, counselors often rely on theoretically grounded interventions and those proposed by leaders in the field of SI. For a more detailed yet succinct review of evidence-based practices in the treatment of SI, see the ACA Practice Brief on nonsuicidal self-injury by Julia Whisenhunt and Victoria Kress (see counseling.org/knowledge-center/practice-briefs). The practice brief provides references to a number of researchers who have
examined SI intervention. Additionally, we recommend a recent publication by Catherine Glenn, Joseph Franklin and Matthew Nock, who examined the evidence base of SI treatments for youth and rated their effectiveness using the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology standards level system.
Individual interventions: Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), created by Marsha Linehan, improves emotion regulation skills and intrapersonal awareness by challenging and modifying one’s cognitions, emotions and behaviors. As mentioned earlier, emotion regulation is the single most common function of SI, so learning to regulate emotions in healthier ways can decrease SI behaviors. DBT interventions are most successful when clients feel supported and accepted by their counselors and when counselors believe in their clients’ ability to change. The evidence base on DBT for SI is still limited, and some results are conflicting, but DBT may be useful for managing some of the emotion dysregulation and alexithymic aspects of SI.
Because of the maladaptive and distorted cognition seen in many people who self-injure, cognitive interventions may be well-indicated. Both David Klonsky and Nadja Slee independently suggest that cognitive therapy has been found to be most effective when focusing on the specific SI behavior and on emotion regulation skills. Problem-solving therapy, a type of cognitive therapy, may be effective when combined with cognitive, behavioral and interpersonal interventions. However, Jennifer Muehlenkamp and others have noted that the long-term results are mixed and inconclusive.
Other empirically based treatment approaches focusing on the behavior of SI include behavioral management strategies, functional assessment analysis of SI and means restriction/delay of SI. Klonsky, Muehlenkamp, Stephen Lewis and Barent Walsh provide a nice overview of these interventions in their book Nonsuicidal Self-Injury, which is part of the Advances in Psychotherapy Evidence-Based Practice series. All of these interventions promote the use of learning new behaviors in an effort to reduce the occurrence of SI.
Pioneered by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, and applied to the treatment of SI by Victoria Kress and Rachel Hoffman, motivational interviewing (MI) is a humanistic-based therapy that can be used to enhance client motivation to change. At its core, MI is a client-centered approach that demands counselor nonjudgment and acknowledges that every client who comes to counseling is at a different place of readiness for change. Although the application of MI to the treatment of SI has not been researched well, counselors may find MI particularly useful for fostering a strong therapeutic alliance and working with clients who may not be willing or ready to cease self-injuring.
Family interventions: Family support can be a protective factor against SI and suicide. As such, family therapy can promote client change and well-being. Family members who engage in therapy can learn how to communicate with their loved ones in ways that are affirming and nonblaming. Counselors can help educate family members on the reasons that their loved ones engage in SI behaviors.
Family therapy can also help counselors explore family dynamics and how those patterns may have influenced clients’ propensity to self-injure. Trauma, abuse, unhealthy communication patterns, inappropriate alliances and other family dynamics can occur in the family of origin and create toxic relationships that are dysfunctional and in need of repair. Counselors can help clients mend these broken relationships, which in turn can potentially decrease the clients’ desire to self-injure. Klonsky and his co-authors provide a brief overview of the support for applying family therapy to the treatment of SI in their book.
To help ensure a growth-promoting experience and minimize both risk and liability, counselors should keep a number of things in mind when working with clients who self-injure. These include the following:
- Monitoring one’s own values when working with clients who self-injure for the purpose of avoiding making the client feel unsafe or creating inappropriate therapeutic conditions
- Identifying when and how to make disclosures of confidential information regarding SI
- Identifying foreseeable harm regarding severe SI or suicide
- Using reliable and valid assessment instruments to identify and monitor SI
- Monitoring one’s own competence to treat SI
- Using evidence-based therapeutic interventions
Above all else, we hope readers will remember five key points about SI from this article:
1) SI is often used as a coping skill, but it always has a function (and sometimes multiple functions). For most people, that function is emotion regulation. Therefore, identifying the function or functions can help to guide intervention.
2) Treatment that focuses exclusively on stopping the SI behavior fails to address the underlying reasons for the behavior and is not likely to produce long-term change.
3) Counselors’ reactions — both verbal and nonverbal — communicate clear messages to clients who self-injure. If counselors want their clients to feel safe and not judged, counselors should start by identifying their biases regarding SI.
4) Counselors need to be specially educated and trained in how to intervene with clients who self-injure. There are risks and therapeutic pitfalls that can be minimized with adequate understanding of SI.
5) SI and suicide are not equivalent, but counselors should work to monitor suicide risk without assuming that all clients who self-injure are suicidal.
The information provided in this article is not exhaustive, but we hope readers will be stimulated to continue learning about SI so that when (not if) a client presents with SI, they will feel better able to intervene.
We would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to our friends and colleagues Victoria Kress and Chelsea Zoldan for their contributions to this article.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Julia L. Whisenhunt is an assistant professor of counselor education and college student affairs at the University of West Georgia. She is an editorial board member for the Journal of Counselor Leadership & Advocacy and serves Chi Sigma Iota (CSI) International through committee membership. A licensed professional counselor (LPC), national certified counselor (NCC) and certified professional clinical supervisor (CPCS) in Georgia, she specializes in the areas of self-injury, suicide prevention and creative counseling. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicole Stargell is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. She is a member of the CSI International Counselor Community Engagement Committee, the ACA Practice Briefs advisory group and the editorial board for the Counseling Outcome Research & Evaluation journal. She is an LPC, NCC and licensed school counselor.
Caroline Perjessy is an assistant professor of counselor education and college student affairs at the University of West Georgia. An editorial board member of the Association for Specialists in Group Work, she has presented and published on dialectical behavior therapy and postmodern approaches to counselor practice and pedagogy. She is an LPC and CPCS in Georgia.
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