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Teen Health 411

Cutting to Relieve Emotional Pain

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Historically, self-injury has gotten very little press, but there is rising concern about youth, mostly girls, who cut themselves, and the advent of MySpace, Xanga, and other social media may mean people are talking about it more. Boys self-harm as well, but at a much lower rate. Males in our society are much more likely to engage in other risk behavior including driving too fast, fighting, and drinking too much. Cutting, self-injury, self-mutilaation, even scratching, usually starts with a need to relive emotional pressure -strong negative emotions that youth do not know how to handle any other way. Conflict at home, trouble with romantic partners, self-loathing, peer trouble, anything can trigger the need to relive the pressure, in teens predisposed to it. Cutting is often associated with other psychiatric diagnoses, including anorexia, bulimia, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and bipolar disorder, as well as sexual abuse.

Cutting used to be a shameful, solitary expression of distress, but nowadays cutting seems to be more prevalent, and it is more likely to be done in small groups of girls curious about the experience after hearing about it some place. It tends to start with safety pins or other sharp objects, and if it is something more than curiosity, progresses to sharper objects and deeper cuts, which are required to get the same "rush" or release.

Cutting is another thing for adults to talk openly about with youth, and keep our eyes open for while checking in with the kids we care about. Signs of a problem include long sleeve shirts, gloves, blood on clothing or towels, as well as general signs for concern including a drop in grades, lack of interest in activities, etc... If you suspect your child is cutting his or herself, talk about it with them and find a counselor (with experience treating self-injury) to help. Do not postpone it - the longer it happens, the harder it is to stop because of the addiction to the rush associated with the release of endorphins. Teens should also be encouraged to help a friend who might be cutting by getting help - it is not a good idea to keep their secret - if they care about the friend, they need to tell an adult they trust.

Resources:
Self-injury a web site for the S.A.F.E. Alternatives Program, the only residential self-injury treatment program in the United States.
We're Talking Teen Health

Photo credit: Spojeni

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About the Author

Dr. Brown is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent health.

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