It is unclear whether the practice of self injury is on the rise recently or if there is just a recent rise in awareness of the behavior. With the demographic for this phenomenon starting at young children in grade school and reaching all the way to those in their 60’s, it’s too hard to tell; especially since self injurers are absolute pros at hiding their habit. One thing is for sure- counselors and psychologists across the nation are sitting up and taking notice.
The stigma of self injury is harsh. Many on the outside of the behavior find it too disturbing, not knowing exactly what is behind the self injurer’s actions. Faced with something they don’t understand, family members or friends may lash out believing that the intent is to irritate or aggravate them. In all reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Self injurers would not work so hard to hide their wounds and scars if this were the case. The fact is, they dread losing the love and respect of those close to them but are unable to stop unless- and until- real help arrives.
The act of self injury serves to release the pressure of overwhelming emotion/s that, in all likelihood, a person has been taught to suppress early in life. These are people who oftentimes grew up in an environment where certain thoughts or feelings were not permitted and the expressions of such were treated as an offense and met with punishment. A majority of self injurers report experiences with sexual, emotional or physical abuse which go hand in hand with their reports of eating disorders, depression and suicidal tendencies; and it is a frightening commonality for these sufferers to have at least one alcoholic parent present during childhood.
Counselors and psychologists faced with more and more of these cases say that what they are seeing are too many children and adults set adrift with ineffective coping skills. These are normal people from all walks of life who were never taught to effectively cope with life’s stresses- and without the benefit of any type of role model demonstrating effective coping skills on a regular basis, the child or adult seeks an outlet to somehow reduce their tension. Although alcoholism, drug abuse and eating disorders are the more ‘common’ of negative outlets, another way is through self injury, the act of altering a ‘mind state’- or mood- by cutting, burning or biting oneself, purposely causing tissue damage to parts of the body. For the self injurer, this is their way to relieve pressure… their self-taught coping mechanism.
This is not an issue that is wholly psychological. There are physiological avenues to explore also. Scientists are looking into the role serotonin plays when it comes to self injurers. Imbalances of this chemical found in the brain have been linked to sufferers of depression and researchers are willing to bet they will find a link to self injurious behaviors as well. In addition, it is believed that those who self injure inadvertently hook themselves on endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers- what provides the ‘rush’ or release as they perform their painful acts- prompting them to repeat the behavior.
Discovering that a loved one has a problem with self harm can be extremely distressing for all involved- be it parents, family, a spouse or friends. However, it is imperative for caregivers to put personal feelings aside and realize that it is a time for acknowledging the feelings (not the behavior) of the injurer and to be a shining example of how to cope with the distress of the situation. Identifying the primary cause for the behavior is not for laymen- and it’s definitely not a time for laying blame. A mental health professional adept at dealing with negative outlet behaviors should be contacted as soon as possible.
Many new therapies are available to help self injurers- and their families- learn new coping skills. Therapists find that they work surprisingly well but say it is mostly because by the time the self injurer is provided with treatment they, and their families, are ready to heal-inside and out.
by Danielle Chapman