Don't Worry, I'm Fine: A Brief Introduction to Self-Harming
Not long ago, I was informed of someone dear to me doing something that I would not have expected. Because it is so common, (even so common that it hit so close to home) that I thought it would be a good idea to provide a brief introduction to the ‘unspoken’ issue.
Do you or someone you know have a teen that self-harms? Unsure of the definition? Well, self-harm is when someone intentionally does something to harm themselves; in most cases the reason for self-harm is to alleviate some kind of emotional/psychological suffering. This usually consists of cutting the skin with sharp objects, scratching oneself, picking at wounds before they are able to heal, biting oneself, burning oneself, and can escalate to more harmful behaviors such as hitting one’s head or breaking bones. Although there are many forms of self-harm, the most common is cutting; there is no one particular location for cutting, but is usually done in areas that can be hidden. Although it is rarely associated with suicide it is still an act that needs immediate attention.
Although it was surprising for me to hear of someone so ‘close to home’ cutting, it is not something that I’ve never experienced before. When I was a teenager, I had a friend who cut; I couldn’t understand how she could endure the pain, but knowing all that I did about her life (as strange as it may sound) I did understand her reasons for doing it. I also spent many years working with youth (mostly girls) who were cutters; some of whom were really dedicated to the act and others who realized the attention they could receive. Many professionals may disagree, suggesting that everyone who self-harms has some kind of mental instability needing attention; I agree that no cutter should be ignored, but from my experience we also have to learn/know whether or not the person cutting needs ongoing treatment (for some young people even negative attention can be better than no attention at all) – and if you are not a professional please seek one’s help before making this kind of assessment.
Believe it or not, there have been a bunch of articles informing us that self-harm is becoming a ‘trend’; teens are injuring themselves as a way to ‘fit in’ with their peers. Yes, young people are hurting themselves in order to be a part of a group; what is worse is that this type of behavior can become addictive, the release of endorphins can become a ‘high’ and/or a control issue, a way of releasing pressure. Doesn’t make sense??? Yes, I know….but this is what many young people are resorting to.
All of that being said, for the sake of this article let’s focus on those who are self-harming due to mental health issues or other mental concerns, such as depression.
One out of every eight people without a mental illness self-harm one way or another; if you imagine 100 people in a line and count from one to eight, then repeat that is a lot of people hurting themselves! Well, think about 100 people and count from one to four, and then repeat; one out of every four people with a mental illness self-harm!
It is important for all parents to know that these behaviors do not discriminate; it happens within all ethnicities, ages and income levels. Just as importantly, I must point out that the most common person to self-harm is an adolescent, Caucasian female who comes from an intact, middle to upper class family. The usual age when cutting begins is during middle school, and is often introduced via their peers or the media.
There are no clues as to why people purposely cause themselves harm; however, there are some suggestions such as impulsivity, to alleviate emotional/psychological pain, feelings of control and peer pressure. Thankfully, there are interviewing techniques that professionals are able to utilize that will help in determining the reasons why an individual may be hurting themselves, and interventions techniques can be implemented.
Risk factors include:
Fitting in with friends or acquaintances
Not able to express one’s feelings
Not able to cope with emotional reactions such as anger or sadness
Not able to deal with stressful family events such as death or divorce
Loss of a friend, significant other or social status
Negative body image
No coping skill
Inappropriate dressing during warm weather (i.e. long sleeves or jackets)
Wearing and not wanting to remove large or a lot of jewelry (on the wrist for example)
Marks on the body that are unexplainable
Behaving secretly or elusively
Spending an extensive amount of time alone
Often having sharp objects at hand (i.e. knives, razor blades, etc.)
If you know someone who is self-harming (as crazy as this may sound) do not get alarmed; parents….do not freak out! Unfortunately, it is a common thing and based on statistics (yes, I know I am not a fan of them, but for this topic let’s consider them) the majority of teens who hurt themselves do not intend to inflict serious injury, and especially do not intend to cause death.
There are several tips that can be offered if you are aware of your child (or any child) is purposely hurting themselves; however, I think the most important tip is to COMMUNICATE, and in doing so…parents, LISTEN, speak calmly, do not judge and remind your child how much you love them; do not try to ‘fix’ the problem, rather I suggest that you speak to a professional and get your child checked out. The situation may not be as serious as you think, but it is a good idea to know so that you can ensure your child’s emotional and psychological well-being is ‘intact’.
If you do not know who to contact then try calling the Boys Town National Hotline at 800.448.3000. They are highly trained crisis counselors and have been recommended by parenting.org.
Awareness is key to making a difference; become aware and act. This is not just a family issue, it is a worldly issue. If you know anyone hurting themselves get involved, talk to someone. As I always say, it takes a village.