Self-cutting has become a highlighted topic within the American media, as well as a growing concern for parents.
Larry Brown, MD, an expert on adolescent risk behaviors and self-mutilation, as well as a researcher for the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center, offers information about this destructive practice.
Q. Why do adolescents self-cut?
A. Adolescents may deliberately harm themselves for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes teenagers cut themselves to be part of a peer group. Often, self-cutting is a means of coping with emotional distress. It may be a call for help because of emotional issues or suicidal thoughts.
Q. Is there a particular age or catalyst for self-cutting?
A. Self-cutting can happen at any age. There are many reasons for self-cutting and for each person the catalyst may be different. A stressful event or the need to be part of a group may cause vulnerable teens to inflict self-harm.
Q. Do self-cutters tend to fit a "profile"?
A. There is no specific "profile" for self-cutters. Their personalities may be unique and their reasons diverse. Some adolescents who cut are depressed and have frequent feelings of shame. Others are prone to impulsive behavior such as drug use. Some want to take control of their bodies and be independent. The reason is personal to the individual.
Q. What warning signs can parents look for in a child that is or will self-cut?
A. Parents can be alert to adolescents who have unexplained injuries to their arms or legs, as well as those who frequently cover their extremities, particularly in hot weather. Parents need to be alert to the warning signs of a change in their adolescent's general mood, friendships, school performance, or the onset of impulsive behaviors such as drug use.
Q. Does self-cutting often accompany other psychological manifestations?
A. Adolescents who repeatedly self-cut may have other associated psychiatric disorders such as post traumatic stress disorder from sexual abuse, drug use issues or an eating disorder. Although the personality style and psychiatric issues for every adolescent are unique, many adolescents who frequently self-cut have low self esteem. Self-cutting may simultaneously relieve their inner emotional distress and allow them to feel they are exerting some control over their bodies.
Q. Is self-cutting always a sign of a deeper issue?
A. Not necessarily. Self-cutting has become quite prevalent and some studies have found that more than 20 percent of adolescents have reported self-cutting at some time in their lives. Many adolescents will "experiment" with it but do not continue.
Q. What kind of gratification do self-cutters receive when they injure themselves and how do they generally feel afterwards?
A. Some self-cutters will experience the cutting as a way to control their body. Also, they may have an endorphine-like release so that their experience of pain is altered. For some teens, self-cutting is a "release" in times when they are emotionally overwhelmed. Afterwards, they may feel in more control, but also ashamed and embarrassed.
Q. Can you explain why self-cutting is psychologically damaging?
A. Self-mutilation generally indicates that the adolescent has difficulty coping with strong emotions. During adolescence, teenagers should develop abilities to describe emotions, think about problems and discuss issues with others. Self-cutting may be a sign that these abilities have not developed.
Q. Where can parents or adolescents who self-cut get help?
A. Parents and adolescents can, and should, receive help from therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists and pediatricians.
Q. What does the treatment for self-cutting usually entail and is it usually successful?
A. The treatment for self-cutting involves a thorough evaluation of its causes and any associated psychiatric disorders. Further treatment may involve reassurance, individual therapy, group therapy or medication. Fortunately, a thorough evaluation and prompt treatment most often leads to successful outcomes for adolescents who are self-cutting.