Differentiating Adolescent Self-Injury from Adolescent
Depression: Possible Implications for Borderline Personality
Sheila E. Crowell & Theodore P. Beauchaine &
Ray C. Hsiao & Christina A. Vasilev & Mona Yaptangco &
Marsha M. Linehan & Elizabeth McCauley
Published online: 22 October 2011
# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011
Abstract Self-inflicted injury (SII) in adolescence marks
heightened risk for suicide attempts, completed suicide, and
adult psychopathology. Although several studies have
revealed elevated rates of depression among adolescents
who self injure, no one has compared adolescent self injury
with adolescent depression on biological, self-, and
informant-report markers of vulnerability and risk. Such a
comparison may have important implications for treatment,
prevention, and developmental models of self injury and
borderline personality disorder. We used a multi-method,
multi-informant approach to examine how adolescent SII
differs from adolescent depression. Self-injuring, depressed,
and typical adolescent females (n=25 per group) and their
mothers completed measures of psychopathology and
emotion regulation, among others. In addition, we assessed
electrodermal responding (EDR), a peripheral biomarker of
trait impulsivity. Participants in the SII group (a) scored
higher than depressed adolescents on measures of both
externalizing psychopathology and emotion dysregulation,
and (b) exhibited attenuated EDR, similar to patterns
observed among impulsive, externalizing males. Self-
injuring adolescents also scored higher on measures of
borderline pathology. These findings reveal a coherent
pattern of differences between self-injuring and depressed
adolescent girls, consistent with theories that SII differs
from depression in etiology and developmental course.
Keywords Borderline personality development.
Self-inflicted injury (SII) in adolescence is associated with
poor psychological functioning, interpersonal conflict, aca-
Skegg 2005; Williams and Hasking 2010). Accordingly, SII
is recognized by the National Center for Injury Prevention
and Control (CDC 2009) and the U.S. Public Health Service
(1999) as an urgent public health problem. In 2006, close to
400,000 adolescents and adults were treated medically for
SII (CDC 2006) a number that likely represents fewer than
30% of persons who engaged in the behavior (Crosby et al.
1999). In community samples, between 8% and 56% of
young people self-injure (Gratz 2006; Hilt et al. 2008;
Hooley 2008; Lloyd-Richardson et al. 2007; Plener et al.
2009; Ross and Heath 2002). Unfortunately, these behaviors
remain poorly understood, in spite of their prevalence and
potential lethality (Nock and Prinstein 2005).
This work was supported by grants F31 MH074196 to Sheila E.
Crowell and R01 MH63699 to Theodore P. Beauchaine from the
National Institute of Mental Health
S. E. Crowell (*):M. Yaptangco
Department of Psychology, University of Utah,
Salt Lake City, UT, USA
T. P. Beauchaine
Department of Psychology, Washington State University,
Pullman, WA, USA
R. C. Hsiao:E. McCauley
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences,
University of Washington,
Seattle, WA, USA
C. A. Vasilev
Department of Psychology, Case Western Reserve University,
Cleveland, OH, USA
M. M. Linehan
Department of Psychology, University of Washington,
Seattle, WA, USA
J Abnorm Child Psychol (2012) 40:45–57
There are several approaches to characterizing and
conceptualizing SII. One approach follows from current
diagnostic convention. The Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR; American
Psychiatric Association [APA] 2000) includes self-injury
in the criterion lists of both major depression (e.g., suicide
attempt), and borderline personality disorder (BPD; e.g.,
recurrent suicidal behaviors, gestures, threats, or self-
mutilating behavior). Among these, BPD is a controversial
diagnosis for adolescents (see Beauchaine et al. 2009). This
has led many practitioners to assign one or more Axis I
diagnoses to self-injuring youth, especially major depres-
sion (Miller et al. 2007). Although many self-injuring
adolescents meet diagnostic criteria for depression (e.g.,
Crowell et al. 2005), to our knowledge no study has
examined whether self-injuring adolescents differ from
depressed, non-self-injuring participants across multiple
markers of vulnerability and risk.
Many believe that the DSM-IV fails to capture the
variegated nature of SII, particularly among adolescents
(see e.g., APA 2010). The developmental psychopathology
perspective provides an alternative means of conceptualiz-
ing SII. Developmental psychopathologists examine bioso-
cial mechanisms associated with SII and potential
etiological overlap between depression, self-injury, BPD,
and externalizing behavior disorders (e.g., Beauchaine et al.
2009; Crowell et al. 2009; Crowell et al. 2005). From this
standpoint, factors that differentiate SII from depression
might suggest alternative etiological pathways, different
developmental outcomes, and/or improved treatment strat-
egies for self-injuring youth (e.g., Preskorn and Baker
A Developmental Approach to Self-Injury
and Borderline Personality Disorder
As noted above, diagnosing BPD in adolescents is
controversial. Nevertheless, there is emerging consensus
that risk for BPD can be identified by adolescence
(Beauchaine et al. 2009; Crowell et al. 2009; Miller et al.
2008). Yet it remains unclear precisely which traits and
behaviors are the most promising markers of early
vulnerability and risk. We have articulated a developmental
model in which SII and BPD represent two points along a
heterotypically continuous borderline trajectory, with SII
emerging prior to BPD among some though certainly not
all individuals (Crowell et al. 2009; see also, Beauchaine et
Specifically, we have outlined five developmental
hypotheses of BPD (Crowell et al. 2009): (1) poor impulse
control, which is largely heritable, emerges early in the
lives of those who develop BPD; (2) emotion dysregulation
emerges later, and is shaped and maintained within the
caregiving environment; (3) Biological Vulnerability ×
Environmental Risk interactions potentiate more extreme
emotional and behavioral dyscontrol; (4) by mid- to late-
adolescence, a constellation of identifiable features and
maladaptive coping strategies (such as SII) mark height-
ened risk for BPD; and (5) these traits and behaviors
exacerbate risk across development via evocative effects on
interpersonal relationships and interference with healthy
emotional development. Following from this model, two
broad behavioral features appear to confer risk for
borderline personality development—trait impulsivity and
Importantly, those who engage in SII and those who are
depressed both suffer from emotion dysregulation (Kring
and Sloan 2010). In contrast, the groups may be differen-
tiated by trait impulsivity, which is highly heritable, confers
risk for externalizing behavior disorders, and is often
reflected in peripheral physiological measures such as
electrodermal responding (e.g., Beauchaine et al. 2009;
Crowell et al. 2009). In spite of these potential differences,
self-injury is commonly viewed as a symptom of depres-
sion. For example, in the Adolescent Depression Antide-
pressants and Psychotherapy Trial (ADAPT), 58 of 163
depressed adolescents had engaged in non-suicidal self-
injury in the month prior to being enrolled into the
treatment study (see Wilkinson et al. 2011). Many of these
adolescents responded poorly to intervention, leading the
authors to conclude that there may be “a subtype of
depression characterized by self-injury that leads to a poor
response to treatment” (p. 499). However, no study has
examined whether self-injuring adolescents differ from
depressed, non-self-injuring teens across biological, self-
and mother-reported measures of behavioral inhibition,
1Although this study is cross sectional and does not provide for direct
inferences about borderline personality development, self-inflicted
injury (SII) is a fruitful criterion to examine as a potential precursor to
BPD (Crowell et al. 2009). As stated previously, most who self-injure
are both impulsive and dysregulated emotionally—core features of
BPD (e.g., Trull et al. 2003; Zlotnick et al. 1997). Self-injury also
emerges in adolescence, often before other BPD criteria (Kessler et al.
1999; Yen et al. 2004). Moreover, although SII is observed without
BPD, their high co-occurrence likely results from shared biological
vulnerabilities (e.g., genetic, neural), contextual risk factors (e.g., early
adversity), and acquired coping strategies (e.g., self-injury) (see
Beauchaine et al. 2009). Rates of SII among adults with BPD are
also extremely high, with 40–90% attempting suicide or engaging in
non-suicidal self-injury at some point in their lifetimes (APA 2004),
and nearly two-thirds first initiating self-injury before age 18.
Moreover, about 50% of adolescent self-injurers can be diagnosed
with BPD, with no adjustment to adult criteria (Nock et al. 2006).
Finally, there is an increasing literature linking adolescent SII to
personality disorders, especially borderline and antisocial pathologies
(Brent et al. 1994; Clarkin et al. 1984; Johnson et al. 1999; Linehan,
Rizvi et al. 2006; Marton et al. 1989; Marttunen et al. 1994; Pfeffer et
al. 1991; Runeson and Beskow 1991).
46 J Abnorm Child Psychol (2012) 40:45–57
internalizing and externalizing psychopathology, emotion
dysregulation, and borderline personality traits.
Biological Vulnerability: Electrodermal Responding
and Behavioral Inhibition
Self-injury and BPD are both associated with serotoner-
gic (5HT) dysfunction (e.g., Arango et al. 2003; Paris et
al. 2004). Moreover, emerging evidence suggests that
suicide attempts and mood disorders may have partially
independent etiologies, with different 5HT genes moder-
ating the gene-gene and gene-environment outcomes that
lead to mood disorders versus suicide attempts (Brezo et
al. 2010). Serotonergic projections from the raphe nuclei
innervate widespread brain regions including the amygdala
and septo-hippocampal system. These structures form a
neural network that inhibits prepotent behaviors in
response to competing motivational goals (Brenner et
al. 2005; Fowles 2000). For example, those who self-
injure are often unable to inhibit harmful behavior, even
though SII can lead to interpersonal conflict, scarring, or
death. Peripherally, low electrodermal responding (EDR)
is a reliable biomarker of poor behavioral inhibition,
observed among those with severe externalizing disorders
(Beauchaine 2001; Beauchaine et al. 2001; Crowell et al.
2006; Lorber 2004).
In a recent meta-analysis, Thorell (2009) reported
electrodermal hypoactivity among self-injuring individuals.
In a subsequent study, very severe suicide attempters (e.g.,
firearm, hanging) showed attenuated EDR relative to less
severe attempters (e.g., pills), and both groups showed low
EDR compared with those who are only depressed (Jandl et
al. 2010). Most studies also reveal either hypoactivation or
no EDR differences among those with BPD (Ebner-Priemer
et al. 2005; Herpertz et al. 1999; Schmahl et al. 2004).
Furthermore, in the one study in which higher baseline
EDR was found, EDR decreases in response to sad mood
induction were reported among those with BPD, but not
among those with social anxiety disorder (Kuo and Linehan
2009). Thus, low EDR and reduced EDR reactivity have
been found in both SII and BPD, consistent with deficits in
biological systems governing behavioral inhibition. In
contrast, non-suicidal depression, mixed depression/anxiety,
and trait neuroticism are more often associated with normal
or heightened EDR (Kopp and Gruzelier 1989; Norris et al.
2007; Papousek and Schulter 2001; Thorell 2009). No
studies, however, have (a) examined EDR among self-
injuring adolescents who may be at risk for developing
BPD, or (b) compared patterns of EDR among groups of
self-injuring vs. depressed adolescents. Following from the
adult literature, we predicted reduced EDR in the SII group
compared with both typical and depressed controls.
Symptoms of Psychopathology and Emotion
If SII is best conceptualized as a severe variant of depression,
we should expect self-injurers to report higher levels of
internalizing symptoms compared with depressed, non-self-
injuring teens. However, if SII shares common vulnerabilities
with BPD, as we have proposed (Beauchaine et al. 2009;
Crowell et al. 2009), we should also expect higher
endorsement of externalizing symptoms, including conduct
disorder (CD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and
substance use disorders (SUDs). Based on a concurrent
internalizing and externalizing vulnerability model, we
predicted that SII would be associated with more symptoms
of both forms of psychopathology compared with depressed
participants. We also hypothesized that the SII group would
score higher than depressed adolescents on borderline
features, even when excluding the self-injury criterion.
Finally, self-injury is associated with severe emotion
dysregulation. Indeed, Linehan’s (1987, 1993) biosocial
theory suggests that self-injury emerges as a form of coping
with pervasive and persistent emotion dysregulation (see
Crowell et al. 2009; Kuo and Linehan 2009 for recent
examinations). According to this account, self-injury
persists because it is sometimes effective in relieving
emotional distress (e.g., Esposito et al. 2003; Johnson et
al. 2005; Nock 2009). Several studies support the emotion
dysregulation model among self-injuring adolescents and
adults (for a review of this and other models see Klonsky
2007). Therefore, we predicted that self-injuring adoles-
cents would report high levels of emotion dysregulation.
We also hypothesized that self-injuring adolescents would
report more difficulty regulating impulsive behaviors in the
face of emotional distress.
Study procedures were approved by the institutional review
board at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical
Center (CHRMC). Written informed assent and consent were
obtained from adolescents and their mothers, respectively.
Participants included 75 adolescent girls, ages 13–17, who
were placed into one of three groups: self-injuring, depressed
were enrolled in order to obtain the final sample. Nine
participants had insufficient data to be included in all analyses
due to their inability/refusal to return for Visit 2 (n=4), failure
of physiological equipment (n=3), or arriving with a
guardian other than the mother (n=2). As a group, these
nine participants were not different from the overall sample
J Abnorm Child Psychol (2012) 40:45–57 47
on any demographic or diagnostic variables, all Fs>0.0, all
ps>0.29, all η2<0.02. Thus, their data were included in
analyses when available. Mean ages were 16.3 (SD=1.0) for
the SII group, 15.6 (SD=1.4) for the depressed group, and
16.1 (SD=1.3) for controls, F(2, 81)=2.02, p=0.14, η2=
0.05. The sample was 70.2% Caucasian, 7.1% African
American, 4.8% Latina, 6.0% Asian American, 1.2%
Native American, and 10.7% of mixed racial/ethnic
heritage. Mean family incomes, in thousands, were
$68.5 (SD=$31.2) for the SII group, $58.5 (SD=$32.9)
for the depressed group, and $72.9 (SD=$30.6) for
controls, F(2, 79)=1.50, p=.23 η2=0.04. Participants
were recruited using (1) online and print classified ads;
(2) banners displayed on local busses; (3) brochures
distributed at local schools, inpatient treatment facilities,
outpatient clinics; and (4) ads distributed through a direct
mailing company. Self-injuring and depressed participants
were recruited in roughly equal numbers from the
community (depressed=14; SII=13) and from clinical
settings (depressed=12; SII=15), χ2(1)=0.30, p=0.59.
Interested participants and their mothers contacted the
study personnel via phone, and were interviewed separately
to determine whether they met criteria. Self-injuring teens
were included if they engaged in self-injurious behaviors
three or more times in the past 6 months, or five or more
lifetime events, at least one of which occurred in the prior
6 months. Depressed teens were included if they met
criteria for at least one episode of unipolar depression in the
past year. Exclusion criteria for all groups included mental
retardation or a schizophrenia spectrum disorder, as SII may
have a distinct etiology within these diagnoses. Otherwise,
SII adolescents were not excluded for (or required to meet)
any clinical diagnosis. Depressed adolescents were excluded
if they reported mania or any lifetime SII (i.e., one or two SII
episodes. Any adolescents who met the appropriate criteria
were enrolled in the SII group). Controls were excluded if
they reported lifetime SII or an Axis I disorder. Due to
potential effects on EDR, participants in all groups were
excluded if they were currently taking beta blockers, mood
stabilizers, benzodiazepines, or recreational drugs (con-
firmed via urinalysis) in the week of the physiological
assessment. Those taking stimulants were included only if
they and their mother consented to a 36-hour washout prior
to the assessment. Participants who met these criteria were
invited to two visits lasting approximately 2–3 h. A $60
incentive was divided across the visits.
Visit 1 Once consent and assent were obtained, adolescents
and mothers were escorted separately into quiet rooms
where they each completed a packet of questionnaires,
described below. Adolescents provided self-reports of
psychopathology, behavior problems, substance use, emo-
tions, and emotion regulation. Mothers provided reports of
their daughter’s psychopathology and behavior problems.
At the end of the visit, adolescents and mothers were
scheduled to return for the physiological assessment, which
occurred approximately 2 weeks later.
Visit 2 At the second visit, adolescents and mothers were
interviewed separately by a trained graduate research
assistant, who obtained more detailed reports of psychopa-
thology and self-injury. In addition, psychophysiological
assessments were conducted in a dimly lit, sound-
attenuated room that was monitored with audio-video
recording equipment. Electrodermal responding was first
measured during the last min of a 5 min resting baseline.
Next, EDR was assessed during a sad emotion induction
using a 3 min clip from The Champ, which depicts a young
boy reacting to the death of his father. This clip has been
demonstrated repeatedly to evoke sadness (Gross and
Levenson1995; Marsh et al. 2008), and to induce autonomic
responses among self-injuring adolescents (Crowell et al.
2005). Physiological recordings continued for 1 min post-
task to evaluate recovery following the movie.
Adolescent Self-Report Adolescent measures of psychopa-
thology and behavior problems included the Youth’s
Inventory (YI; Gadow et al. 2002), the Youth Self-Report
(YSR; Achenbach 1991b), the Children’s Depression
Inventory (CDI; Kovacs 1992), and a questionnaire assess-
ing onset, frequency, and problems associated with sub-
stance use (Hawkins and Catalano 2001). The 120-item YI
is a self-report checklist that yields dimensional scores and
diagnostic cutoffs for several Axis I disorders from the
DSM-IV (APA 2000). Each item is rated on a 4-point scale
(0 = never, 1 = sometimes, 2 = often, and 3 = very often),
with a score of 2 or higher considered positive for a given
diagnostic criterion. All raw scores presented for the YI
maintain the 4-point scale. Specificity and sensitivity of the
YI are adequate to excellent (Gadow et al. 2002). The YSR
is a 112-item measure of adolescent behavior problems,
including several psychopathology subscales and broad-
band internalizing and externalizing factors. The YSR is
used widely and is well-validated, with excellent psycho-
metric properties (Achenbach 1991b). Items are rated on a
three-point scale (0 = never, 1 = sometimes, 2 = often). The
CDI is a 27-item questionnaire that assesses difficulties
associated with depression. The measure has adequate
psychometric properties and yields five subscales and an
overall depression score (Kovacs 1992). We report the total
48J Abnorm Child Psychol (2012) 40:45–57
score. The substance use questionnaire assesses whether or
alcohol), age at first use, and the number of times used in the
past month. At the end of the questionnaire there are
several yes/no questions regarding problems associated
with use (e.g., has substance use ever caused problems
with family or friends). A total problem score was created
by summing questions on problematic use (range=0–15;
Hawkins and Catalano 2001).
Adolescents also provided self-reports of their difficul-
ties with emotions and emotion regulation using the
Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS; Gratz
and Roemer 2004), the Pediatric Anger Expression Scale
(PAES; Jacobs et al. 1989), and the Generalized Expectan-
cies for Negative Mood Regulation (NMR; Catanzaro and
Mearns 1990). In addition to a total ER difficulties score,
the DERS yields six subscales including non-acceptance of
emotions, difficulties engaging in goal-directed behavior
when upset, poor impulse control when emotionally
dysregulated, lack of emotional awareness, limited access
to emotion regulation strategies, and lack of emotional
clarity. The DERS has high internal consistency, adequate
construct and predictive validity, and good test-retest
reliability (Gratz and Roemer 2004). It has been validated
among children and adolescents, and predicts physiological
reactivity during episodes of emotion dysregulation among
youth with and without psychopathology (Vasilev et al.
2009). The 15-item PAES assesses three styles of anger
expression among youth, including anger-out (outward
expression of anger), anger-reflection/control (ability to
maintain control of anger), and anger-suppression (directing
anger internally). Items are rated on a 3-point scale (1 =
hardly ever, 2 = sometimes, 3 = often). Reliability
coefficients for the PAES range from adequate to excellent
(Jacobs et al. 1989). The NMR is a 30-item measure that
assesses individual beliefs about the ability to cope
successfully with negative mood. The NMR has acceptable
internal consistency, temporal stability, and discriminant
validity (Catanzaro and Mearns 1990). Items are rated on a
5-point scale, ranging from strongly disagree to strongly
Mother-Report Mothers reported on adolescent psychopa-
thology and behavior problems using the Adolescent
Symptom Inventory (ASI; Gadow et al. 2002) and the
Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL; Achenbach 1991a),
parent-report versions of the YI and YSR, respectively.
Interview Measures Borderline symptoms were assessed
using the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV
personality disorders (SCID-II; First et al. 1996). The
SCID-II is a widely used semi-structured interview with
excellent reliability. Items are rated on a 3-point scale (1 =
not present, 2 = subthreshold, 3 = threshold). A continuous
BPD score was created by converting items to a 0–2 scale
and summing them. Thus, scores could range from a low of
0, indicating no BPD criteria, to a high of 18, indicating
that all nine criteria were met at or above threshold.
Adolescents and their mothers were also interviewed
separately with the mood disorders supplement of the
Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia for
school-age children (K-SADS-PL; Kaufman et al. 1997).
Both were asked to report on the adolescent’s most severe
episode of depression and/or mania in the past year. The
interview includes questions assessing symptoms and
correlates of depression (30 items) mania (8 items). Each
item is tallied on a 3-point scale (1 = not present, 2 =
subthreshold, 3 = threshold). A score of zero was also
possible, indicating no information. Although rare, there
were some zeros, therefore the original 1–3 scale was
maintained. When all information was available, scores
could range from 30 to 90 (depression) and 8–24 (mania)
The K-SADS is a semi-structured diagnostic interview and
has excellent test-retest reliability and concurrent validity.
Finally, adolescents and their mothers reported on the
adolescent’s self-injury history using the Lifetime-Suicide
Attempt Self-Injury (L-SASI; formerly Lifetime Parasui-
cide Count; Linehan and Comtois 1996), a structured
interview for gathering information regarding lethality,
suicidal intent, level of medical treatment received, and
specific details about the adolescent’s first, most recent, and
most severe SII episodes. With interviewer assistance,
informants tally the number of lifetime events of (a)
different forms of self-injury, (b) self-injury with intent to
die, (c) self-injury with ambivalence, (d) self-injury without
suicidal intent, and (e) medical treatment received. The
highest lethality event in each category of SII was also
assessed. Lethality rankings range from 1 = very low,
including events such as scratching or head banging, to 6 =
severe, including events such as Russian roulette or
asphyxiation. In separate interviews, participants and
mothers were read a description of SII and asked to report
whether the adolescent had ever self-injured. Positive
indications were followed up by administration of the full
interview. There are no psychometric studies of the L-SASI.
However, the items are identical to a longer measure, the
Suicide Attempt Self-Injury Interview (SASII; Linehan,
Comtois et al. 2006), which has very good inter-rater
reliability and adequate validity.
Electrodermal responding was recorded continuously using
a Biopac MP100 system (Goleta, CA) with appropriate
amplifiers and signal conditioners, at a sampling rate of
J Abnorm Child Psychol (2012) 40:45–5749
1 kHz. Data were acquired with two standard 0.8-cm2Ag-
AgCl electrodes, attached to the thenar eminence of the
participant’s nondominant hand with adhesive electrode
washers and a 0.05 molar NaCl solution. Nonspecific skin
conductance responses were scored as fluctuations exceeding
Psychological and Diagnostic Data
L-SASI Descriptive statistics on self-injury are summarized
for adolescents in the SII group in Table 1. Participants
reported a wide range of lifetime self-injury events (3–
1,350). Mothers also reported a wide range of events (1–
266). Although SII participants were recruited for multiple
episodes of self-injury, independent of suicidal intent,
81.5% of the SII group (n=22) reported some intent to
die (either ambivalent or certain intent) on at least one
occasion. As observed in our previous work (Crowell et al.
2005), mothers reported fewer episodes of self-injury than
their daughters across nearly all categories. Nevertheless,
mothers recalled a greater number of events requiring
medical attention. Based upon both mother and adolescent
reports, the average lethality of attempts was low (a ranking
of 2, including such items as superficial cuts or overdoses
of ≤10 pills). Mother–child agreement on the L-SASI was
poor, consistent with research showing low agreement on
internalizing psychopathology (Stanger and Lewis 1993).
The only significant correlation across raters was for
lethality of attempts, r=0.95, p<0.001. Correlations were
not significant for total events, episodes with intent to die,
episodes with ambivalent intent, episodes with no intent, or
events requiring medical attention, all rs≤0.11, all ps≥0.39.
Most of the SII group engaged in cutting as the method of
choice (n=24). Stabbing (n=1), head banging (n=1), and
overdosing (n=1) were the primary methods for remaining
SII participants. All but three participants had engaged in at
least one other method of SII.
Psychopathology Self- and parent-report measures of psy-
chopathology are summarized by group in Table 2. For
both the YSR and CBCL, self-injuring and depressed
adolescents met or exceeded clinical cutoffs (T=67, 95th
percentile) on most scales. To assess group differences,
analyses of variance (ANOVAs) were conducted. Omnibus
group effects significant at p<0.01 were followed up with
group contrasts using Tukey tests. Given the large number
of such contrasts, only effects significant at p<0.01 are
For YSR internalizing psychopathology, SII adolescents
scored higher than controls across all five internalizing
scales, and higher than depressed adolescents on the
anxious/depressed scale, all ps≤0.01 (see Table 2). For
YSR externalizing T-scores, self-injuring adolescents
scored higher than controls across all five externalizing
subscales, all ps≤0.001. Differences between the SII and
depressed group included delinquent behavior and overall
externalizing, both ps≤0.001.
ANOVAs were also conducted on all CBCL scales. For
internalizing psychopathology, self-injuring adolescents
scored higher than controls on all five problem scales, all
ps≤0.01. However, the SII group did not differ from
depressed adolescents on any CBCL internalizing scale.
For the five externalizing scales, adolescents in the SII
group scored higher than controls, all ps≤0.001, but not
higher that depressed participants.
Table 1 Self-injurious events
on the “Lifetime Suicide
Attempt Self-Injury” (L-SASI)
by adolescents and their mothers
aThe number and percentage of
participants reporting at least
one incident of this type. All
participants with available
Self-Injury count data (n=26)
Total self-injurious events
Events with intent to die
Events with ambivalence
Events without intending to die
Events requiring medical attention
Lethality of self-injury
Total self-injurious events
Events with intent to die
Events with ambivalence
Events without intending to die
Events requiring medical attention
Lethality of self-injury
50 J Abnorm Child Psychol (2012) 40:45–57
Means for the continuous DSM-IV symptom scores are
also presented by group in Table 2. Considerable psycho-
pathology was observed among self-injuring adolescents.
On the YI, SII adolescents reported higher symptom counts
than control adolescents across nearly all (13 of 16)
categories, all ps≤0.01. The only exceptions were for
separation anxiety, manic symptoms, and schizoid person-
ality disorder, the latter two of which were rule-outs.
Compared with those in the depressed group, SII adoles-
cents scored higher on CD, PTSD, and substance use.
Similarly, self-injuring adolescents scored higher than
controls on nearly all diagnostic categories of the ASI
(excluding separation anxiety, hyperactive symptoms of
ADHD, and anorexia). However, they scored higher than
the depressed comparison group only on the substance use
Group contrasts on other measures are also included in
Table 2. Significant effects emerged for the CDI total T-
score F(2, 81)=72.4, p<0.001, η2=0.64, self-reported
depressive symptoms F(2, 74)=115.7, p<0.001 η2=0.76,
and mother-reported depressive symptoms, F(2, 71)=94.9,
p<0.001 η2=0.73. Group differences were also found for
Table 2 Psychopathology scores by group
DSM-IV scales (YI and ASI)2
ADHD combined type
Oppositional defiant disorder
Obsessive compulsive disorder
KSADS depression symptoms
KSADS manic symptoms
Children’s Depression Inventory
YI Youth’s Inventory; ASI Adolescent Symptom Inventory; K-SADS Kiddie Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia.1T-scores.2Raw
scores.††p≤0.001 SII vs. typical adolescents only.†p≤0.01 SII vs. typical adolescents only.**p≤0.001 SII compared with both groups
J Abnorm Child Psychol (2012) 40:45–5751
self-reported manic symptoms, F(2, 73)=8.3, p=0.001 η2=
0.19, and mother-reported manic symptoms, F(2, 73)=5.6,
p<0.01 η2=0.13. Self-injuring adolescents scored higher
than both comparison groups on most of these measures of
psychopathology, all ps≤0.001, except for mother-reported
depression and mania, where only the comparison between
the SII and control group was significant, both ps<0.01.2
Substance Use Group differences were assessed with
ANOVAs comparing frequency of use for tobacco, alcohol,
marijuana, other substances, and total problems associated
with use. Self-injuring adolescents reported higher rates of
use than both comparison groups for tobacco, F(2, 81)=
11.5, p<0.001 η2=0.22, and higher rates of marijuana use
than typical controls, F(2, 81)=6.4, p<0.01 η2=0.14. Self-
injuring adolescents had greater substance use problems
than both depressed and typical adolescents F(2, 81)=23.5,
BPD Continuous measures of BPD criteria are presented
by group in Table 3. As predicted, self-injuring adolescents
scored higher on borderline pathology than depressed
adolescents, even when excluding the self-harm criterion,
F(2, 74)=34.6 p<0.001, η2=0.48. The SII group scored
higher than both the depressed and control groups on
SCID-II BPD features, p<0.001. Follow-up tests compar-
ing self-injuring teens with typical controls were significant
for all criteria, all ps<0.001. Self-injuring adolescents
reported more self-damaging impulsivity and frantic efforts
to avoid abandonment than depressed adolescents, both
ps≤0.001. Ten participants in the SII group met the full
adult criteria for BPD on the SCID-II. Even though
depressed participants showed elevations on some BPD
criteria (the most common being chronic feelings of
emptiness), only two participants in the depressed compar-
ison group met criteria for BPD (Kruskal-Wallis test, p=
0.03). Thus, self-injuring adolescents, recruited solely
based upon SII behavior, exhibited elevations in borderline
pathology compared with both typical and clinical controls.
Emotions and Emotion Dysregulation Group differences in
self-report measures of emotions and ER difficulties are
presented in Table 4. ANOVAs examining total scores on
emotion-related measures were significant for the DERS,
F(2,82)=50.1, p<0.001, η2=0.55, the NMR, F(2,82)=41.9,
p<0.001, η2=0.51, and the PAES, F(2,82)=16.3, p<0.001,
η2=0.29. Follow-up contrasts indicated that those in the SII
group reported more ER difficulties across all measures
compared with typical controls. Compared with depressed
participants, self-injuring adolescents scored higher on the
DERS impulse control subscale and the DERS total score,
both ps<0.001. These were the only emotion regulation
variables that differentiated the two clinical groups.
2At the time of the assessment, 20 SII and 15 depressed adolescents
met full diagnostic criteria for depression on the Youth’s Inventory.
This difference was not significant, Mann–Whitney U, p=.085.
Table 3 Patterns of borderline
personality criteria across
aNumber and percentage
meeting threshold criteria
††p≤0.001 on comparison of SII
vs. typical controls only.
**p≤0.001 on both comparisons
(SII vs. depressed & SII vs.
M (SD)M (SD)M (SD)F
Continuous borderline personality disorder (BPD) scores
BPD without self-injury
BPD criterion items
Recurrent suicidal or self-mutilating
Chronic feelings of emptiness
Unstable interpersonal relationships
Stress-related paranoia or dissociation
Inappropriate intense anger
Affective instability and mood
Frantic efforts to avoid abandonment
Number of participants meeting full
23 (85.2%) 0 (0%)0 (0%)498.4 0.93**
52 J Abnorm Child Psychol (2012) 40:45–57
EDR We assessed group differences in EDR at rest and
during the emotion-induction task (The Champ). To test for
resting differences in EDR, a multilevel model (MLM) was
created that included four non-task epochs (2 pre-induction,
2 post-induction) as a repeated measures outcome variable.
Analyses were conducted using HLM 6.08 (Raudenbush et
al. 2000). The full maximum likelihood model followed
Level 1: Resting EDR ¼ p0jþ p1jepoch
Level 2: p0j¼ b00þ b01clin vs: cont
p1j¼ b10þ b11clin vs: cont
At Level 1, intercepts and slopes in physiological
responding were grand mean-centered across resting
epochs. At Level 2, nested orthogonal group contrasts
(clinical vs. typical controls, SII vs. depressed) and age
were added as predictors of Level 1 slopes and intercepts.
In addition to resting EDR, a parallel model was created
examining EDR across the six epochs of the emotion-
induction task, where Champ EDR was entered as the Level
1 outcome variable.
As predicted, there was a negative coefficient for the
resting EDR intercept on the comparison of clinical vs.
control (both depressed and typical) adolescents, β=−0.24,
t(65)=−1.95, p=0.05, and between self-injuring and de-
pressed adolescents, β=−0.52, t(65)=−2.05, p=0.04. Thus,
lower EDR was observed among self-injuring participants.
This finding is presented in Fig. 1. The model predicting
changes in EDR across The Champ was not significant, all
βs≤0.04, all ts(65)≥−1.65, all ps≥0.10.
ðÞ þ rij
ðÞ þ b02SII vs: dep
Þ þ u0
Þ þ u0
Þ þ b12SII vs: dep
With this study, we sought to identify factors that
differentiate self-injuring adolescents from depressed ado-
lescents with no SII history and typical controls. We
hypothesize that the diagnostic and biological features that
differentiate these groups are potential markers of height-
ened risk for BPD. This is not the only study finding that
self-injuring adolescents meet diagnostic criteria for dis-
orders other than depression (e.g., Crowell et al. 2005;
Nock et al. 2010; Nock et al. 2006). However, our study is
the first to compare self-injuring adolescent females with
depressed and typical control groups across self-report,
mother-report, and autonomic assessments. One major
contribution of this study is the inclusion of a depressed
comparison group that was similar to self-injuring partic-
ipants across many parent- and self-report measures of
Table 4 Measures of emotions
and emotion regulation
DERS Difficulty with Emotion
Regulation Scale; NMR
Negative Mood Regulation;
PAES Pediatric Anger
††p≤0.001 on comparison of SII
vs. typical controls only.
**p≤0.001 on both comparisons
(SII vs. depressed & SII
M (SD)M (SD)M (SD)
Fig. 1 Resting differences in electrodermal responding across groups
J Abnorm Child Psychol (2012) 40:45–5753
Factors that differentiated SII from depressed adoles-
cents included self-reported anxiety/depression, delinquent
behavior, conduct disorder, broad externalizing scores,
PTSD symptoms, and both parent- and self-reports of
adolescent substance use. Additionally, adolescents in the
SII group reported higher depression and manic symptoms
on the K-SADS, higher levels of suicidal ideation,
greater hopelessness, more tobacco use, and higher
emotion dysregulation and impulsivity. The two BPD
criteria that differentiated SII from depressed partic-
ipants were impulsive behaviors (e.g., shoplifting) and
frantic efforts to avoid abandonment (e.g., threatening,
pleading). In addition, the SII group scored higher than
typical controls on nearly all measures of psychopathol-
ogy and behavior problems, replicating and extending
our previous work conducted without a psychiatric
control group (Crowell et al. 2005).
Self-injuring adolescents also exhibited lower resting
EDR than both the depressed and typical control groups. As
reviewed above, attenuated EDR is a biomarker associated
reliably with externalizing behavior disorders, and is
believed to relate specifically to impulsivity/behavioral
disinhibition (see Beauchaine 2001; Fowles 1988, 2000).
Attenuated EDR is consistent with models of borderline
personality development that specify heritable externalizing
vulnerability as an etiological factor (Beauchaine et al.
2009; Crowell et al. 2009).
Possible Implications for Borderline Personality
Although there is a growing literature on the development
of BPD, researchers have only begun to identify develop-
mental precursors and longitudinal trajectories leading to
the disorder (Crawford et al. 2006; Johnson et al. 1999;
Lenzenweger and Cicchetti 2005; Yen et al. 2004). With
this study we found a coherent pattern of differences
between self-injuring and depressed adolescents, including
biological, self- and mother-reported differences across
measures of externalizing vulnerability. This suggests that
SII may differ from depression in its origins and develop-
mental course. Our findings also reveal that by adolescence,
self-injuring teens show higher levels of borderline pathol-
ogy compared with depressed, non-self-injuring adoles-
cents. Nevertheless, future studies should follow both
groups into adulthood to determine which adolescents
manifest continued problems during this critical develop-
It is noteworthy that many of the depressed adolescents
also showed subthreshold elevations on BPD symptoms,
and that two depressed adolescents met diagnostic criteria.
Without longitudinal data it is unclear which depressed
adolescents, if any, are at risk for adult BPD, or whether
predictors other than self-injury are better prospective
markers of risk (e.g., severity of psychopathology, number
of comorbid diagnoses, interpersonal conflict). Moreover,
relative to adult studies of BPD, our sample is small. Thus,
we were not able to examine, for example, potential
moderators (e.g., BPD symptoms) of psychophysiological
responding. The sample was also too small to perform
subgroup analyses for adolescents who met criteria for
BPD. Finally, this sample includes only self-injuring
females and their mothers. Future research should examine
whether the diagnostic and physiological correlates of self-
injury are similar among adolescent males. It is possible
that self-injuring males will show developmental trajecto-
ries that differ from those seen among young women
(Beauchaine et al. 2009).
Since the BPD literature has lacked a developmental focus,
there are few prevention approaches targeted specifically
toward youth at risk for later BPD. However, the common
assumption that self-injury is an internalizing behavior
problem—similar to depression—has implications for treat-
ment development. This could influence downward exten-
sions of efficacious adult interventions and which
behavioral and pharmacological treatments are applied to
self-injuring adolescents. Regardless of possible develop-
mental outcomes, self-injuring girls may not respond
adequately to interventions targeting only mood disorders.
Indeed, there is long-standing evidence that treating Axis I
disorders alone may be insufficient to reduce suicidality,
delinquency, academic failure, interpersonal problems, and
substance use among those with borderline traits (e.g.,
Kernberg et al. 2000; Linehan 1993). For example, in a
longitudinal study of adults with co-occurring depression
and BPD, remission of BPD was not affected by the
presence of MDD; however, the presence of BPD delayed
improvements in MDD significantly (Gunderson et al.
2004). In other words, improvements in MDD were
predicted by prior improvements in BPD but not vice versa.
Identifying whether BPD features are present may also
improve care for self-injuring and depressed adolescents. In
addition to targeting negative mood, interventions that
address impulsive behaviors, interpersonal conflict, and
other BPD traits are most likely to help these adolescents.
Dialectical behavior therapy is one such treatment, and has
been modified recently for younger populations (Miller et
al. 2007). Our results are consistent with treatment-outcome
studies finding that self-injuring adolescents differ from
depressed teenagers and may therefore require more
targeted forms of care (Wilkinson et al. 2011).
54J Abnorm Child Psychol (2012) 40:45–57
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