Coping by cutting – “I cut to live, not to die”
A current Wall Street Journal article draws attention to the disturbing and growing problem of cutting among teens. Researchers indicate that between 5% and 10% of adolescents may participate in self-injury behaviors, cutting being the most prominent.
In the past several months, numerous articles have been published asking why so many kids are having so much trouble. An older article is also linked below—the sad story of Rachel, whose decade-long struggle with cutting was complicated (caused?) by a distorted view of Christianity.
Adolescent psychologists say there has been a sharp rise in recent years in the number of teens found to be engaging in self injury, mostly cutting, which usually involves using a sharp object such as a razor blade to inflict small cuts on the arms or elsewhere. The teens, both girls and boys, come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and include good students and struggling ones. Many have obvious emotional challenges while others appear outwardly to be thriving, says Dr. Stephen Lewis, associate professor of psychology and self-injury researcher at University of Guelph in Ontario.
Social media posts that feature cutting sometimes draw curious adolescents who want to try it, in what psychologists call a social-contagion effect. More teens also appear to be admitting to the behavior, or telling adults about friends who do it, because cutting has lost some of the social stigma it once had.
Experts say young people engage in “non-suicidal self-injury” as a way of dealing with stress, anxiety, shame and other negative emotions—the physical pain gives them temporary relief from emotional pain. A widely discussed theory is that because many teens are connected to their peers through social media all evening, they never get a break from social pressures and other stressors of the school day. Without a chance to decompress at the end of the day, many teens don’t adequately learn to regulate their emotions, an essential developmental skill, psychologists say.
Cutting has become “the unfortunate coping strategy of our youth in the 21st century,” says Dr. Miller, of Albert Einstein College. …
The first time Ruth Carter remembers harming herself, she was 13 years old and helping make banners for her eighth grade graduation ceremony.
“We were putting it all together with hot glue,” said Carter, of Phoenix, Arizona, “and I purposely — quote ‘accidentally’ — used too much hot glue on one of the pieces, knowing that when I pushed down, hot glue would leak out the sides and I would burn myself.”
By the time the glue scalded her skin, Carter realized the hard way that this was a bad idea. But the physical pain gave her a way to cope with stress in her life, which included physical and emotional abuse as well as the sense that her life at the time wasn’t quite right.
“I felt really alone in the world,” she said. “The way I was running my life wasn’t working out — which is kind of an odd thing for a 13-year-old to be thinking.”
Eventually this single act of harming herself became a habit that stayed with her until she turned a corner in her mid-20s. She never cut herself with razor blades or other sharp objects, but she found emotional relief by scratching at her skin with her fingernails until the skin broke.
“That would be the way of managing my emotions,” she said. “Definitely the more stressed I was — from family situations or school or social situations — it was more likely to happen.”
Self-Harming Often an Emotional Release Valve
The motivation for adolescents to self-harm may not be what many people think.
“Fewer of them do it for attention, for other people to see,” said Benna Strober, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist. “More of them do it to self-soothe, and they don’t want other people to see it, especially their parents.”
To keep their behavior secret, some adolescents will harm themselves in areas where it’s less likely to be seen — upper arm, thighs, upper chest. And not all self-harming is severe enough to land teens in the emergency room. That makes it more difficult to really know how many adolescents are doing it.
The exact reasons that adolescents self-harm are complex, which makes it challenging to treat. Some may injure themselves to rebel against their parents, take risks, or to .
But for many it provides a kind of release for emotions that they may not be able to deal with any other way.
“I think it might have been seen as something I did for attention, but it wasn’t. It was a cry for help,” said 44-year-old Teresa O’Brien, of Dover, New Hampshire, who suffered physical and emotional abuse as a teenager.
As a teen, O’Brien started harming herself, including cutting her arm and picking at her skin.
“The physical pain certainly felt better — it kind of let out the emotional pain,” she said. “If you feel physical pain, you have something to actually hurt for.” …
Despite efforts of social media sites to curb the amount of disturbing material their users post online, images of self-harm, like “cutting,” continue to surface on sites like Instagram and Tumblr.
“Over the last five years I’ve noticed the volume of the practice has been consistent – if not increasing,” says Jamison Monroe Jr., executive director of the Newport Academy, a teen and young adult treatment facility with locations on the East and West coasts.
The most popular social media sites have since 2012 outlined policies for images or posts about self-harm, whether glorifying cutting, suicide or eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
But a search of related terms still can yield pictures of cut wrists and more graphic images that could be triggering for people inclined to harm themselves.
“They are seeking a connection to normalize the behavior, to make them feel OK about the way they are coping,” Monroe says. “The fact that they are cutting means they need help.”
Teen posting images of disturbing behavior online is not new. Pictures of dangerously thin people, usually girls, appear as “thinspiration,” motivating people with bulimia or anorexia to avoid treatment. Other images involve dangerous trends: In April, teens posted pictures of themselves trying the “Kylie Jenner Challenge,” sucking their lips inside a glass to give them an inflated look like the reality star. The glass can break under the pressure, requiring stitches; the suction can create severe bruising and tissue damage. Teens have posted videos of the “Cinnamon Challenge,” where they swallow a spoonful of ground cinnamon in under 60 seconds without drinking anything – which can be dangerous to their lungs.
The concern experts have about these sites is that they can lead to others engaging in similar behavior. “They found out about [cutting] first through social media, or they heard about it somewhere else and seeing it on social media made it OK to them,” Monroe says. …
Of all the self-destructive behaviors I had, cutting was always the hardest to explain. How do I speak about pain that had always been unspeakable? How do I answer all the questions about why I felt driven to hurt myself? How do I reconcile having inflicted destruction upon my body even while serving the Lord?
I started cutting in middle school and continued into college. I honestly can’t recall how I decided that hurting myself was the only way to feel better. I just remember feeling desperate to experience physical pain so I could get some sense of relief. I felt horribly freakish after that first time — who finds reprieve in pain? — but thought I could keep doing this as an outlet for my emotions. I didn’t know what else to do with everything I was feeling, and I didn’t think it was safe to talk about the hard time I was having.
In fact, I really didn’t even know what was going on with me. I just knew something was off with me — that I didn’t fit in with anything or anyone, and something about me was just different. I couldn’t even explain it to myself, so how could I try to talk to someone else about the emotional disaster I felt I’d become?
I spent all of the 90s cutting. I had started self-injuring to try to drown out the internal struggle that raged daily in battle. But as I kept telling myself that I shouldn’t be feeling, that I needed to distance myself from my emotions, I ended up becoming completely out of touch with them. Over time, I didn’t know how I felt about anything anymore. I knew that tragic events should fill me with grief, but I didn’t know how to feel sad. Even the death of a friend evoked nothing.
As years passed, I turned to cutting as a way to make sure I could still feel something besides fear (the only emotion that always stayed at my side). It was as though seeing blood seep from my wounds was proof that I still hadto be alive.
Part of me wanted to feel again, but I was afraid of what might happen if the wall holding back my emotions broke. What if everything had been building for years behind a dam, and I drowned in the flood of feelings that had been held back for a decade? The possibility of such a tidal wave simply reinforced to me that it was necessary to cut in order to fortify the wall.
In the midst of all this, I prayed. Boy, did I pray. I asked for clarity, understanding, wisdom and anything else I could think of that might help me sort through this mess. But every time I’d start to hear from the Lord, His voice would get obscured by a maelstrom of lies. …