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Mental Health Center

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Self-Cutting Linked to Risky Teen Sex

Study Shows Risky Sexual Behavior Reported More Often Among Frequent Self-Cutters
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 12, 2008 -- Teens who are frequent self-cutters are also more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors and have a greater HIV risk than teens receiving psychiatric treatment who have cut just a few times, new research suggests.

The findings identify habitual cutting behavior as an important risk factor for sexual risk, even in already high-risk teens, researcher Larry K. Brown, MD, tells WebMD.

In 2005, Brown and colleagues from the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center in Providence, R.I., first reported the link between self-cutting and sexual risk taking in a study involving close to 300 teens undergoing intensive psychiatric treatment.

Self-cutters were three-and-a-half times more likely to report infrequent condom use than teens who did not self-cut.

The newly published research included only the teens from the earlier study who had engaged in self-cutting, classifying them as either frequent or infrequent self-cutters.

The researchers found that frequent self-cutters -- those who had cut themselves more than three times -- used condoms less consistently, were more likely to share cutting instruments, and reported less overall self-restraint than the infrequent cutters.

"There were very real clinical differences among kids who cut habitually -- those who really did it as a habit -- and those who had done it in ways that they described as experimental," Brown says.

Self-Cutting and Sexual Risk

It is not clear how many teens and adults engage in self-mutilation by cutting their skin with knives, razor blades, or other sharp objects.

What is clear is that the practice is not uncommon, especially among teenage girls.

Awareness of the issue has also grown as celebrities no less famous than Princess Diana and Angelina Jolie have publicly acknowledged engaging in cutting during their teenage and early adult years.

In a 2002 study, 14% of the 440 adolescents surveyed said they had practiced some form of self-mutilation, with self-cutting reported most often.

It is also clear that while some teens cut themselves over and over, many others may try cutting a few times and abandon the practice.

"Little is known about whether adolescents who experiment with self-cutting once or twice engage in the same level of risk behaviors as those who repeatedly self-cut," Brown and colleagues write.

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