What is it?
It’s not something people talk much about, but self-injury is serious problem for as many as 1 million Americans or more, most often for people between the ages of 13 and 30. People who “self-injure” are not (necessarily) suicidal – they inflict injuries upon themselves, usually in response to stress or trauma, but not with the intention of killing themselves. Their injuries may vary from relatively minor cuts that heal quickly to very serious wounds that leave permanent scars. If you or someone you know self-injures, please get professional help right away.
Cutting seems to be the most common type of self-injury. “Cutters” might use razors, needles, broken glass, etc. to make repetitive slices on their arms, legs or other body parts. Some people burn themselves or pull out their own hair.
Many people who self-injure say they do it because they normally feel “numb” and cutting helps them to “feel alive.” Others talk about the “sense of control” they may get from self-injury. Most agree that incidents of self-injury are triggered by stress and anxiety.
Self-injury is usually kept secret, and the “cutter” often feels deeply ashamed and guilty. The physical effects can be devastating. People who self-injure are at risk for serious infections. Permanent, disfiguring scarring can also result from self-injury. People who self-injure often wear heavy pants and long-sleeved shirts to conceal the marks they^ve left on their own bodies.
Why do people self-injure?
This problem is not completely understood by health professionals. It seems to be more common among people who experienced abuse as children, particularly sexual abuse. It may also be prevalent in families with drug and alcohol or mental health problems.
Whatever the context, self-injury seems to function as a coping mechanism—”cutters” use self-harm to feel calm, “in control,” or just to “feel something.” Clearly, self-injury is not a healthy coping mechanism – it is a self-destructive behavior that probably reflects deeper, more complicated mental health or personal problems.
With help, people can learn to use better, healthier coping mechanisms. Maybe it means exercising or painting or writing or dancing instead of hurting yourself—whatever works as an alternative method of coping with feelings of anxiety or stress or “numbness.” It is also really important to get help from a therapist who knows something about self-injury. He or she can help you figure out what lies behind your urge to cut.
If you hurt yourself intentionally, please know that you are not alone. You might think that this behavior makes you a “freak,” but it isn’t so unusual. Talk to a counselor or your general health care provider—chances are they’ve helped others with this same problem. Whatever pain or bad experiences underlie your urge to self-injure, a professional can help you to heal, both inside and out.