No matter what you may call it -- self-mutilation, cutting, self-harm, or self-injury, this type of intentional self-destructive behavior to one's own body is a serious concern.
Maggie Baumann, MA: According to Mental Health America, a national non-profit organization dedicated to helping people live mentally healthy lives, the most common method of self-injury is cutting.
However, other self-injurious behaviors can include:
• head banging
• picking at skin
• hair pulling (trichotillomania)
Teens are particularly at risk of self-mutilation, with more girls affected than boys. Besides gender and age, other common factors seen with this behavior include people who have a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. It's also more prevalent in teens that have co-existing problems such as alcohol/drug abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and eating disorders. Additionally, it is seen in people who lack skills to express their emotions and are known to have a poor support network.
During an initial consultation with a new client in my practice as a therapist, one of the questions I always ask is about any self-harming behaviors, past or present. More than 50 percent of the eating disorder clients I see acknowledge a history of cutting behaviors. Once, a client showed me the inside of her forearm, where she had a four-inch scar displaying the words, "I am fat."
Is Cutting a Suicide Attempt?
Well, it can be. But in most cases, the intent of self-injury is rarely a suicide attempt. However, any self-injury attempt could accidently lead to death.
More often than not, self-injury is simply a mechanism for coping with extreme emotional distress. It can relieve intense feelings, anger, or anxiety. It can provide a way for someone to break emotional numbness or feel some sort of reality. Physically, self-mutilation is thought to release endorphins, neurotransmitters in the brain that cause a "high-like" feeling.
Warning Signs of Self-Injury
Teens who self-injure usually go to great lengths to cover up their injuries to prevent parents or other adults from discovering their secret. Some of the signs to look for include:
• Appearance of abnormal number of bruises, scars, or scratches
• Wearing pants or long sleeves in warm weather
• Finding razors or other sharp objects in your teen's room
• Low self-esteem and/or depression
• Difficulty expressing feelings in words
• Relationship conflicts
• Poor functioning at home, school, or work
Parent's Role in Treatment
Seek professional help for your teen from a trained family therapist. Anti-anxiety and/or antidepressants prescribed by a doctor may also be helpful in stabilizing the teen's mood.
As a parent, it's important not to shame your teen or show any signs of disgust at his/her behavior. Be accepting and compassionate that your teen is sending you a signal for help with an emotional issue he/she is not able to cope with in a healthy way. Open your lines of communication with your teen -- and participate in family therapy, if indicated.
|Maggie Baumann, M.A., is a marriage family therapist intern working as a counselor in a private practice in Newport Beach as well as at The Victorian in Newport Beach, a residential treatment facility providing care to women struggling with eating disorders, addictions and body image. Maggie has written for various publications and appeared on national television promoting eating disorder awareness and prevention. She also facilitates two eating disorder support groups in Orange County, one in Newport Beach and the other in Laguna Beach. You can reach Maggie by email or visit her website at MaggieBaumann.com.|