Alumni news

Study finds imagining self-harm linked to increased risk

16 April 2024

A new study from The University of Western Australia has found vividly imagining self-harm is related to increased urge to self-harm and the future likelihood of an individual acting on the urge.

The study was led by Dr Julie Ji, Forrest Research Foundation alumna and adjunct lecturer from UWA’s School of Psychological Science, and published in Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior.

“About one in 10 adolescents in Australia have engaged in self-harm — where an individual deliberately damages their own body without the intention to die — and the primary reason for doing so is to help cope with intense and unwanted emotions,” Dr Ji said.

“Self-harm behaviour can become repetitive for some young people, and we need to know more about what’s influencing a person’s in-the-moment decision-making by examining the real-time factors driving dynamic fluctuations in self-harm risk.

“We already know that most young people who self-harm report that they experience mental images of self-harm before engaging in it, but this was the first study to track the occurrence of these mental images in real-time, alongside the urge to self-harm and self-harm behaviour.”

The study involved 43 young people in Western Australia aged 17 to 24 years who had a history of self-harm. Using intensive experience sampling, participants responded to brief surveys on their mobile phone seven times a day for 14 days.

“We found the occurrence of self-harm mental images tracked closely with fluctuations in the urge to self-harm, so when urge was high, the individual’s mind becomes pre-occupied with imagining the actions, bodily sensations, and emotional benefits of self-harm,” Dr Ji said.

“Importantly, we found mental images of self-harm were not just a by-product of having the urge to self-harm — the imagery was associated with increases in urges and the likelihood of urge being acted upon the next time.”

The results indicate that mental imagery could also be used as an intervention target in preventing self-harm.

“We know that imagining future events can motivate and guide our actions, and this study’s findings indicate that this is also the case in self-harm. Importantly, this also suggests that mental imagery may be harnessed to help young people turn to alternative coping strategies, which is the key treatment goal for self-harm,” Dr Ji said.

“This will help scientists and clinicians develop more effective interventions that can help young people who want to stop self-harming.”

The project was a collaboration with leading clinical psychology experts from UWA, Curtin and Sweden’s Uppsala University, and was funded by Western Australia’s Raine Medical Foundation and the Forrest Research Foundation.


This article is reposted with permission from the UWA Media Centre. Original article: