Cutting oneself is pretty much what it sounds like--taking a blade or other sharp object and cutting one's own skin on any part of one's body until it bleeds. Although cutting is the most common form of self-injurious behavior, self-injury can include burning oneself with a lighted cigarette or match, biting, banging one's head, punching oneself or pulling out one's own hair (trichotillomania). People who injure themselves in these ways are typically between 13-15 years of age and female, although cutting can go on for years unnoticed by others. Some boys exhibit self-injurious behaviors as well. Here is some information that can help you to better understand self-injury:
- Cutting is a coping mechanism, granted an unhealthy one, that helps people to handle intense feelings of upset or pressure.
- The brain releases endorphins when the body is cut. These endorphins provide pain relief and a sense of well-being, thus relieving psychological pain.
- Because of the release of endorphins, cutting can become a compulsive behavior. The next time emotions are at a high, the brain craves the relief that the endorphins provide.
- People who cut themselves tend to be people without the skills to express these strong feelings in more healthy ways. They need to learn self-soothing methods that are not injurious.
- People who cut themselves sometimes also suffer from other mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, eating disorders or other challenges, though this is not always the case.
- Many teens who cut themselves tend to be very good at hiding their self-injury. They may wear long sleeves to hide scars, explain away any cuts that are observed or even share tips on how to hide their self-injury, such as this example from 43 Things.
- You cannot make someone who cuts herself stop. Lecturing, begging, rejecting……none of these strategies will work. Instead, you can offer your support by letting your friend know that she deserves to be healthy and happy and that you are willing to help her find the assistance she needs.
- Remember heroin chic? This was a fashion style of the mid-90s that made models look as if they were heroin addicts (thus drawing protests from anti-drug groups and even then-President Bill Clinton). Some people who were not heroin addicts still tried to achieve this look, for example through self-starvation. Unfortunately, cutting has an analogous element of boundary-crossing chic for some teenagers who try cutting themselves as a way to appear edgy and cool.
- If you know someone who cuts herself, don’t decide for yourself whether the cutting is an effort to be cool or a cry for help. Take cutting as a sign of underlying emotional troubles that need to be addressed.
- If you are a parent to a teenager who cuts herself, find her a therapist that she likes and trusts. Be prepared for the possibility that your entire family may be asked to participate in family therapy. In family therapy, the family is seen as a system that needs to work together--all members of the family are expected to be part of the therapy process.
Having a child or friend who cuts herself can be a frightening experience. However don't let your own fear or denial get in the way of an opportunity to help. The person who cuts herself is in pain and needs to express that pain in ways that are not self-injurious. Cutting oneself is a severe enough symptom to merit mental health help as soon as possible.