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Teenagers who cut hurt everyone

Deliberate self-harm is a serious problem that shouldn't be ignored

Posted: April 23, 2009 3:46 p.m.
Updated: April 24, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Whitney first felt the pain of isolation when her family moved to the Santa Clarita Valley. Everyone else in the family was enthusiastic about the move, but not Whitney. Always the introvert, she wasn’t as outgoing as her older brother, who easily consumed all of the attention. Neither did she feel as smart as her younger sister, who she describes as a weekly academic-award winner.

“I was just kind of there, like a fly on the wall that no one would notice, no matter what I did or said. It seemed that way at home, at school and when my family was with my cousins, aunts and uncles. They all kinda ignored me, and I don’t know, it kinda hurt a lot,” she said.

Whitney began cutting herself in the 7th grade. She tried for weeks to make friends at her new school and in her new neighborhood but all the kids already had their cliques coming from the local elementary schools into the junior high.

“I tried to fit in but everywhere I went I was ignored like I wasn’t even there,” she said.  Whitney’s pain began to mount about three months after arriving in the SCV. She said she’d cut herself in her room. She didn’t worry about hiding the marks unless they were freshly made. “Once they weren’t fresh anymore, it didn’t matter because no one looked close enough at me to notice that anything was wrong.”

Deliberate Self Harm (DSH) occurs in many different ways — cutting, pulling out hair, burning, hitting and scratching oneself.

The most common form of DSH among adolescents is cutting.  A teen who has decided to hurt him or herself does so for many different reasons.

Some try it because they know someone who’s done it, or because they want to belong to a peer group where the practice is prevalent.

However, psychologists point to cutting as a way to cope with overwhelming emotional distress as well as a call for help from those who love and care for them.

One of the major topics that consumes teen thinking to various degrees is whether they are or will be accepted by family and peers.

Whitney said she used to cut herself to relieve strong feelings of not being wanted by family and friends.

“I would have a bunch of feelings at the same time,” she said. “Everything would make me mad or angry. Different thoughts came into my mind and I would get headaches when I thought too hard. When I cut myself I didn’t stop until there was a lot of blood. The funny thing is, cutting did make me feel better, but only for a short while — then I’d feel more sad and depressed than before.”

Cutting made Whitney feel better because endorphins are released into the brain during the process altering the experience of pain and temporarily relieving the overwhelming emotions.  Like Whitney, however, most teens report feelings of shame, guilt or embarrassment after the effect of the endorphins has worn off. Parents and teachers should be vigilant. Warning signs of cutting include unexplained injuries to extremities or other parts of the body, or wearing clothes to cover arms and legs, especially in hot weather.

“If it was a new cut, I’d wear a sweater or shirt with long sleeves,” said Whitney. Other warning signs include a marked change in the child’s mood or personality, a drop in grades, sudden change in friends or seemingly impulsive behaviors.

Cutting is a sign that a teenager has not developed the ability to describe their feelings and think about their problems in a way that will help them talk to others and problem solve. Although it isn’t always an indication of a deep psychological issue, some of the psychological disorders repeat cutters may suffer from include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, sexual abuse, drug abuse, eating disorders and extreme feelings of loneliness or low self-esteem.  

Most kids who are cutting will need professional help to process what’s going on internally for them, to deal with the feelings that build up after cutting has occurred, and to learn healthier ways to cope and adapt to the stresses in their lives.

Successful treatment always follows a thorough evaluation that rules out any other psychiatric disorders and determines the factors in the child’s life that contribute to the cutting. Treatment includes individual, family and group therapies, and, in some cases, medication.

However, no amount of therapy can replace what kids are really looking for: someone to tell them that they matter. Whitney’s advice to parents?  

“It’s important to check on your kids and become close to them. Ask about things they’re going through and what they (parents) can do to help them change their situation. Get a better relationship with your kids and get to know who they really are,” she said.

Whitney had advice for kids age 14 to 17  going throught struggles similar to hers: “I’d tell them that cutting doesn’t make anything better. It feels better in the moment, but it’s not real. I would tell them if they are lonely, like I was, to not worry. They’ll meet new people, and with help, they’ll make it through,” she said.

Whitney made it through because of her mother. Her mom noticed the marks on her arms one day when they were washing dishes together. When her mom asked about them, Whitney said she didn’t want to talk about it and stormed out of the kitchen. She said her mom gave her some time, but then came to her room later that evening to talk.

“I was glad she didn’t insist on talking about it in the moment. It gave me time to gather my thoughts, to tell her how I was feeling and what was going on with me,” she said.

Whitney said that night kicked off a series of conversations with her mom that allowed her to stop thinking her thoughts and feelings were foolish. Those conversations validated her feelings, which is exactly what teens need.

“I still have scars that I regret, and I still have thoughts of cutting myself when things get too hard. But then I remember that I don’t want to hurt myself, and I don’t want to hurt my parents or friends who love me, so I find another way to deal,” she said.



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