Are suicide attempters who self-mutilate a unique population?

B Stanley, M J Gameroff, V Michalsen, J J Mann
American Journal of Psychiatry 2001, 158 (3): 427-32

OBJECTIVE: Individuals who mutilate themselves are at greater risk for suicidal behavior. Clinically, however, there is a perception that the suicide attempts of self-mutilators are motivated by the desire for attention rather than by a genuine wish to die. The purpose of this study was to determine differences between suicide attempters with and without a history of self-mutilation.

METHOD: The authors examined demographic characteristics, psychopathology, objective and perceived lethality of suicide attempts, and perceptions of their suicidal behavior in 30 suicide attempters with cluster B personality disorders who had a history of self-mutilation and a matched group of 23 suicide attempters with cluster B personality disorders who had no history of self-mutilation.

RESULTS: The two groups did not differ in the objective lethality of their attempts, but their perceptions of the attempts differed. Self-mutilators perceived their suicide attempts as less lethal, with a greater likelihood of rescue and with less certainty of death. In addition, suicide attempters with a history of self-mutilation had significantly higher levels of depression, hopelessness, aggression, anxiety, impulsivity, and suicide ideation. They exhibited more behaviors consistent with borderline personality disorder and were more likely to have a history of childhood abuse. Self-mutilators had more persistent suicide ideation, and their pattern for suicide was similar to their pattern for self-mutilation, which was characterized by chronic urges to injure themselves.

CONCLUSIONS: Suicide attempters with cluster B personality disorders who have a history of self-mutilation tend to be more depressed, anxious, and impulsive, and they also tend to underestimate the lethality of their suicide attempts. Therefore, clinicians may be unintentionally misled in assessing the suicide risk of self-mutilators as less serious than it is.

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