[Skip to Content]

Endowment fund created to support research on teenage suicide and self-harm behaviors

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — SUNY Upstate Medical University has announced the establishment of an endowment fund to support educational, treatment and research efforts to prevent suicide and self-harm behaviors.

SUNY Upstate psychiatry professor Robert J. Gregory, M.D., whose idea it was to create the fund, says the deliberate behavior of self-harm, such as cutting, burning, asphyxiation or overdosing is a new silent epidemic among teenagers and young adults. It is so new, he says, that the world of psychiatry does not have an official diagnosis for such behavior.

"It is a silent epidemic because of society's general unawareness of its prevalence among young people," said Gregory, adding that nationally 14 to 21 percent of high school students and 14 to 35 percent of college students have engaged in some form of self-harm, and nine percent of teens have made a suicide attempt during the past year.

The endowment fund, which will be administered by the Upstate Medical University Foundation is called the "Suicide and Self-Harm Prevention Fund." "Given the scarcity of treatment resources in the community, it is our hope and vision that this fund will grow large enough to establish a center at SUNY Upstate that will be focused on the prevention of suicide and self-harm," Gregory said.

Gregory is collaborating with Georgian Mustata, M.D., also of SUNY Upstate's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, to research narratives of teens and their experiences with self harm.

"Preliminary findings suggest that there may be three subgroups of cutters: those who use the behavior as a coping mechanism; those who derive a sense of euphoria from the behavior and also are paradoxically at higher risk for suicide; and those who have a more profound identity disturbance who cut themselves to feel alive and confirm their existence," Gregory said. "Members of the latter group frequently are victims of sexual molestation and may have borderline personality traits."

Through his clinical work and research of persons at risk for suicide and self harm, Gregory has developed a 12- to 18-month outpatient treatment—dynamic deconstructive psychotherapy—that focuses on how people process their experiences, especially of emotion-laden interpersonal encounters.

A recent clinical trial provided evidence that this treatment was highly effective in reducing both suicide attempts and self-harm behaviors in persons at high risk, such as those with borderline personality disorder.

"Heightened community awareness of self-harm behavior is important because it is so prevalent and is a major risk factor for suicide," he said. "It also can lead to hospitalizations and visits to emergency departments, and is associated with other problematic and dangerous disorders such as eating disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse."

Gregory adds that coping is the main reason many kids cut. "These kids have difficulty verbalizing their feelings and cut to relieve emotion," he said. The emotional pain they feel is transferred to physical pain, which is something they can control. For some, the sight of blood leaving their body also represents perceived badness leaving their body.

More information on the Suicide and Self-Harm Prevention Fund can be made through the Foundation office by calling at 315-464-4416.