If we care at all about kids we should learn to recognize, understand, and answer these visual cries of a generation longing for spiritual truth, emotional healing, and answers. Self-injurious behavior (SIB) or self-inflicted violence (SIV) has been defined as “the commission of deliberate harm to one’s own body. The injury is done to oneself, without the aid of another person, and the injury is severe enough for tissue damage (such as scarring) to result. Acts that are committed with conscious suicidal intent or are associated with sexual arousal are excluded.” By May 2013, the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – 5 is likely to include a new diagnosis – NSSI, or Non-Suicidal Self-Injury.

Since SIB is still stigmatized and usually hidden, accurate statistics on its prevalence are difficult to find. What is known is that the average self-injurer begins at age 14 and continues the practice, usually with increasing severity, into his/her late 20’s.
Among adolescents, the ratio of boys to girls who cut themselves is equal. Most teens and young adults who exhibit SIB are sometimes the ones who you’d least suspect. For the most part, they are bright, intelligent, and generally “normal”. One recent study of high school students in the Western part of the U.S. estimates that between 26 and 37 percent were cutting.

Those who tell the first person stories say they harm themselves because “it makes me feel better.” They describe periods of incredible emotional turmoil, anger, hate, and stress that are calmed by the cathartic act of cutting. “As I cut deeper, my mind began to feel relieved of the torment,” says one self-mutilator. “My body eased of the tension, and I began to feel comforted.” In effect, cutting becomes an effective coping and self-care strategy for individuals who have not learned healthy and correct ways to deal with the problems and pressures of life.

In addition to release, others say the practice helps them feel “alive”. They are reassured by their capacity to feel physical sensation. They describe a desire to escape “numbness” and by feeling “something” they know they are still alive. “There have been times when I don’t even feel like I’m alive,” Jane says. “I’ll do something to feel – anything. And that’s usually cutting. Just seeing blood. . . I don’t know why.” This poem from one cutter describes the same sensation:

Blood wounded hand bleeds
Red blood makes me feel real
I am alive I feel pain otherwise numb
I may as well be a plastic baby doll until
I cut myself and bleed and see the blood bleeding from the body
Not plastic after all . . . but human babydoll.

Still others resort to SIB as a way to gain control of a chaotic existence. “Sometimes I just feel out of control,” says a 19 year old college student. “All the hurt and confusion, the loss and emotional pain, is transferred into something I can control and feel.” This is especially true for kids who have experienced abuse. They see SIB as a way to exert their own power in the midst of feeling powerless. “What better way (at least that’s the way the thinking goes) to gain control than to do something to myself. I’ll beat you to it. You won’t hurt me anymore. I’ll do it to myself.”

Tomorrow: Caring for cutters and some helpful resources.

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