I never understood cutting. Or really gave it much thought.
In my years as a middle school teacher, if any of the students had actively cut him or herself, I was completely unaware.
Ditto regarding my years as a mother of teens.
Then an adult friend said something to me recently that really took me by surprise.
She had a sibling who had died and the subsequent days were filled with a sort of grief that became somewhat unbearable to her. Family relationships being what they are—and my friend being the driven, faith-filled Catholic gal that she is—started to create a perfect storm of human frailty.
I watched as my friend motored through a variety of emotions that ranged from helplessness to anger and then circled back to logic and reason peppered with charity and kindness. Through it all, my heart carried her burden. It pained me to see her in such anguish.
At one point, exhausted from it all, she quietly said to me, “I see why people cut themselves.”
I had no response.
In her pain, she connected with the pain of others who choose to cut themselves to alleviate their ache and burden—to somehow grab control of things. The physical harm they inflict upon themselves serves a real purpose, a relief. It is something they are in charge of when everything else around them seems uncontrollable.
My friend desired that sort of control in that very moment.
In an online article on Education.com, Wendy Lader, PhD, clinical director of S.A.F.E Alternatives and co-author of Bodily Harm, says self-harm is more prevalent than most people think. “Studies on adolescents in community samples report a lifetime prevalence between 15 and 20 percent,” she says.
She goes on to say that the most common reason is control of emotions. “For kids experiencing intense emotions, it can be used to deaden the intensity. For those feeling a sense of numbness, it serves the opposite effect, helping them feel something.”
Let’s face it: this need to cope with intense emotions is something that we have all grappled with from time to time—and we know how difficult it can be, as adults, to get those emotions under control. So it is no wonder that among our adolescent population—which faces a tremendous amount of stressors along with the standard teen angst fare—the cutting phenomenon is on the rise.
In the same article on Education.com, Susan Bowman, a licensed counselor and author says, “When kids cut themselves, it releases endorphins and they get a high from it. It becomes a control issue: This is the way I release the pressure.”
My friend’s pain was—as much as is humanly possible—my own. So in her simple statement about cutting, she spoke volumes. If she had turned around and cut herself right in front of me I believe I would have understood.
In her own pain at the death of her sibling and the ensuing family dynamics surrounding that difficult time, my friend had an incredible epiphany. She recognized that sometimes emotional pain or trauma is so deep, so overwhelming that we can’t cope with it and we need to find some sort of release.
And it is the specific release of cutting—or self-harm—that our kids are pursuing more and more.
There are a number of indicators for parents, guardians, and teachers to be aware of for possible self-harm which, while typically starts around 15 years old, can certainly start at any time. According to a study by Cornell University and a few other reports, these include:
- Wounds (it seems obvious but pay attention to wounds—especially clustered wounds and scars) on the most common areas: wrists, arms, hands, thighs.
- Bandages on the same areas especially in a consistent basis.
- Blood inside clothing or on sheets or towels.
- Clothing that doesn’t make sense for the season—for instance, long sleeves or pants on a hot summer day.
- Signs of distress, depression, anxiety, or withdrawal that seems out of pattern, excessive, long in duration, or inconsolable.
All current reports and studies agree that self-harm—cutting, self-injury—is far from being “fringe” behavior for kids. It doesn’t just affect the children of “other” families.
It shouldn’t be stigmatized or ignored. There are many avenues of help available.
And of course, this is a reminder that we are all called to be bastions of love, kindness, prayer, and charity for all children.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.