Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, May 25th, 2016
The cuts, burns and scars of nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) are rarely seen, as they are inflicted in private and hidden under pant legs and sleeves.
Janis Whitlock, Ph.D. ’03, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery (CRPSIR) and a research scientist in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, hopes to spotlight the issue by launching a set of web-based education and training courses. Working with eCornell, the university’s online learning subsidiary, she is showing how researchers can use the internet to broaden their reach well beyond campus.
The curriculum, aimed at individuals who interact with youths in school, community and clinical settings, as well as parents, offers research-based information paired with intervention and prevention strategies to address a phenomenon that is widespread but not yet fully understood.
“It’s a scary thing to encounter,” said Whitlock. “It’s just not your typical, run-of-the-mill risk behavior.”
Individuals practicing NSSI – upward of 15 percent of adolescents and young adults try it at least once – deliberately damage their bodies, for example by cutting, burning or carving their skin or punching objects or themselves to inflict harm. Whitlock cites 15 to 17 percent lifetime prevalence of NSSI among Cornell students, according to surveys.
Although the surface wounds may look like suicide attempts, Whitlock pointed out that NSSI is, in fact, a coping mechanism for individuals trying to deal with intense feelings or attempting to reconnect from a sense of dissociation that stems from a history of trauma or abuse.
After first hearing about NSSI among otherwise functional, nonclinical adolescents more than a decade ago, Whitlock launched epidemiological studies, founded CRPSIR and brought together colleagues to form the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury in 2006. “Now we have so much literature coming out, I can’t keep up with it,” she said. But research on techniques for intervention in schools and families is still nascent, and findings do not always reach those in need.
“When I give presentations in schools, even elementary schools, I can pack a house talking about self-injury – it’s really pretty sad,” said Whitlock. “People come up to me asking for follow-up information. Clearly we need another dissemination vehicle.”
Paul Krause ’91, CEO of eCornell and associate vice provost for online learning, agreed: “We quickly recognized that it would make sense to work together because eCornell has all the capabilities to support the development, delivery and marketing of an online NSSI course.”
Best known for its professional development courses in such areas as marketing, finance and hospitality, eCornell also applies its experience and best practices to specialized curricula such as Whitlock’s to extend research-based education to learners beyond Ithaca.
Some 40 participants have enrolled since the first, self-paced version of the NSSI 101 courselaunched in February. This month, Whitlock is facilitating co-experts on NSSI by teaching the first iteration of a three-week version that offers eight to 10 hours of interactive instruction and continuing education credits. Shorter, abridged courses are also in development for medical professionals and parents of children who self-injure.
“This is an exciting opportunity for us,” said Krause, under whose leadership eCornell doubled the number of faculty members it works with to more than 100 over the past year. “We have faculty who are leading experts in their fields. eCornell’s mission is to help them use online learning to reach people all over the world.” (Whitlock’s first registrant was from South Korea.)
“The audiences with whom we seek to engage – be they parents, educators or others – need information that is high-quality, based in sound research, is compelling and that they can access on their own schedule,” added Rachel Dunifon, associate dean for research and outreach in theCollege of Human Ecology. “Working with eCornell to deliver research-based programming allows us to take a cutting-edge approach to our public engagement mission, broadening our reach and enhancing our impact as we seek to fulfill our college mission of improving lives.”
Olivia M. Hall, Ph.D. '12, is a freelance writer and anthropologist.