The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

The Social Environment of Non-Suicidal Self-Injury Among LGBT Youth

Sunday, January 20, 2013: 11:45 AM
Executive Center 2A (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Sarah J. Nickels, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Denver, Denver, CO

Few researchers have examined the social problem of non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) among LGBT youth.  Yet, a growing body of research indicates that LGBT youth are more likely than their peers to engage in NSSI and that the behavior is correlated with a range of other psychosocial issues (Almeida, Johnson, Corliss, Molnar, & Azrael, 2009; Author (a); Author (b)).  Based on research on other risk behaviors among LGBT youth, the contextual influence of homo/transphobia may be key to understanding this disparity.  Scholars have suggested that growing up in a homo/transphobic environment contributes to “minority stress,” which adversely impacts LGBT youth’s mental health and behavior (Kelleher, 2009; Meyer, 2003).  Therefore, the elevated rates of NSSI among LGBT youth may be associated with living in a social context that condones and legitimizes negative treatment of LGBT people. 

The purpose of this qualitative study is to explore the role of the social environment in NSSI behavior among LGBT youth through the voices of youth themselves.  Guided by minority stress theory, the study examines the complex relationship between LGBT identities, the social environment, and NSSI.  Specifically, the research question that guided this study is “how do LGBT youth describe the relationship between their social environment and their experiences with NSSI?” 


This phenomenological study was conducted as the qualitative strand of a larger mixed methods research project.  Convenience sampling was used to recruit LGBT youth with a history of engaging in NSSI from a community-based organization serving that population.  An alternative consent procedure was used for youth under 18 given the potential risks associated with obtaining parental consent for this study.  Data were collected through individual interviews with 44 LGBT youth and young adults, ages 15-22.  Data analysis was conducted using the constant comparative method of analysis (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).  Using ATLAS.ti, the author inductively developed in vivo and open codes, examined relationships between codes within and across transcripts, grouped codes into families and themes, and identified areas of convergence and divergence.  Finally, themes were visually displayed with supporting codes and quotes (Huberman & Miles, 1994). 


Several themes describe the relationship between LGBT youth’s social environment and their experience of NSSI, including: (1) relational (dis)connections to key systems of support, (2) invisibility and lack of voice; (3) communication and help-seeking; (4) managing oppression, stigma, and shame; and (5) belonging.  The author will describe results using rich description from supporting data and demonstrate how they span across multiple levels of youth’s social environment. 


The findings from this study contribute to an understanding of the social factors that influence NSSI among a sample of LGBT youth.  The findings indicate that homo/transphobia permeates youth’s social relationships and experiences and that, for some, NSSI is used to cope with that social reality.  Ultimately, these findings can inform the development of culturally relevant NSSI interventions.  The study also suggests that effective NSSI prevention and intervention strategies should focus not only on the individual, but also on the social environment(s) in which LGBT youth live.