What’s the Band-Aid for self injury?
When most people think of self-injury, also termed “self-mutilation,” “self-harm” or “self-abuse,” they think of cutting. Other examples include scratching, picking scabs, or interfering with wound healing, burning, punching self or objects, infecting oneself, inserting objects in body openings, bruising or breaking bones, some forms of hair pulling, as well as other various forms of bodily harm.
Sue Smith (name has been changed), a 16-year-old girl living with a chronic alcoholic father who screams at her when he is in a drunken rage while her mother stands idly by, retreats to her bedroom and begins cutting her arms with a razor blade. An accomplished high school student, Sue calls “self-injury my friend I can turn to at any point in the day.” It is easier and more comfortable, she says, to pierce her skin and draw blood than to confront people and emotions that anguish her.
To people unfamiliar with self-injury, the behavior in the case study example may seem very bizarre, upsetting or freakish to understand; it is also widely misunderstood. However, many self-injurers report they feel empty inside, unable to express their emotions, are misunderstood, lonely, and fearful of intimate relationships and adult responsibilities. They also say injuring is their way to cope with or relieve painful feelings. Some common arguments from self-injurers include: “Self-injury doesn’t hurt anyone”; “it’s my body and I will do what I want”; “it’s the best way for others to see how much emotional pain I’m in”; “giving up self-injury will only make me hurt more”; “I need to be punished, I’m bad”; and, “if I don’t self injure, I’ll end up killing myself.”
“Un-like suicide, which is a desire to terminate life, self-injurers have a desire to ameliorate pain through self-injury,” says Dr. Wendy Lauder, psychologist and clinical director of Self Abuse Finally Ends (SAFE) Alternatives Clinic in Chicago, Ill.
Reasons why self-injury has been associated with suicide is that self-injurers can accidentally kill themselves or can become hopeless choosing suicide as an option.
Current estimates of self-injury in the United States based upon studies and clinical observation are 1,400 out of every 100,000 people in the general population have engaged in some form of self- injury. The typical onset of self-injury is at puberty and the behavior can last five-10 years or longer if left untreated. Additionally, a significant number of self-injurers also struggle with eating disorders or alcohol or substance abuse problems. Currently, one-half to two-thirds of self-injurers have an eating disorder.
Though not exclusively, the person seeking treatment is usually from a middle-to-upper class background, of average to high intelligence, and suffers from low self-esteem. Nearly 50 percent of self injurers report physical or sexual abuse during their childhood, and as many as 90 percent report they were discouraged from expressing emotions, particularly anger and sadness.
Some warning signs to look for if you suspect someone close to you is self-injuring are: unexplained frequent injuries, including cuts and burns; wearing long pants and sleeves in warm weather; low self-esteem; overwhelmed by feelings; inability to function at work, school or home; and inability to maintain stable relationships.
Once your child or someone close to you is seeking treatment for self-harming, here are some things you can do to help:
– Make yourself available with support,
– Try not to get angry when your child or loved one self-injures,
– Try to gain understanding,
– Don’t punish your child or loved one for cutting themselves; they can resort to more extreme measures,
– Don’t suggest alternative measures i.e., snapping a rubber band, drawing on your body with a marker, punching a pillow, etc.,
– Be caring and supportive like a friend.
If someone displays the signs and symptoms of self-injury, a mental health professional should be consulted. Wellspring Counseling, a low-cost individual, family, group and child counseling center located in Truckee, is staffed by master’s level counseling interns able to provide treatment that assists self-injurers in helping them understand and manage their destructive thoughts and behaviors.
Additionally, Wellspring provides referral sources for individuals and families needing more extensive treatment. For more information, contact Wellspring at 582-4616 and visit http://www.wellspringcounseling.org.
Christine Carter Osmundson is completing her Marriage and Family Therapy Internship at Wellspring Counseling Center in Truckee.
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