UMass professor works to heal self injury with research, compassion

Feb 14, 2019

Professor Elizabeth Lloyd-Richardson has spent her career studying non-suicidal self injury, finding answers to questions about why people — especially young people — harm themselves, and what others can do to help. Now, she is the co-author of a book called “Healing Self-Injury: A Compassionate Guide for Parents and Other Loved Ones” along with researcher Janis Whitlock.

As many as one in four teenagers and young adults engage in non-suicidal self injury: a term which covers a variety of behaviors, including cutting or burning oneself or punching walls with the intent of causing bodily harm. Roughly the same percentage of boys and girls self-injure, although they may cause harm to themselves in different ways: Girls are more likely to cut, while boys are more likely to punch walls.

Lloyd-Richardson said that people engage in this behavior to feel better, using it as a way to regulate their emotions, which can be overwhelming, to feel something when they feel numb, increase energy, or calm down.

“The myth is still out there about attention seeking,” Lloyd-Richardson said. “By a huge percent, that’s not what’s going on.”

This type of self injury is distinct from a suicide attempt, although those who self injure are at a greater risk of attempting suicide.

Lloyd-Richardson and her co-author felt there was a lack of practical resources for the family members of adolescents who self-injure.

“We didn’t want the book to just be a bunch of science,” Lloyd-Richardson said. Instead, the book is composed of easy to read information drawn from research and interviews alongside worksheets and questions family members can use to better communicate.

Lloyd-Richardson and Whitlock worked on giving family members tools for talking about self-injury with their teenagers, negotiating conflict, and problem solving.

“There is a role that parents and families play in their ability to help their teenagers with moving beyond this,” Lloyd-Richardson said. “So that’s what this book is trying to do. It’s trying to help parents understand what they might be doing to contribute, and the power that they have in being able to help lift up their teenager.”

Lloyd-Richardson said that her ultimate goal is to uplift families and teenagers.

“The research that we’ve done reallty shows that there are a lot of families that feel like they have grown on the other side of this experience,” Lloyd-Richardson said.

“Healing Self-Injury: A Compassionate Guide for Parents and Other Loved Ones” is available on