Self-inflicted injury, a secret epidemic in youth – my story

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A real-life story

She is sitting at a table, smoking, while talking with her boyfriend. She is in emotional pain. She is 21 and very insecure, despite the fact that she is often told how lucky she is, because she is a good person, beautiful and outgoing. She sits smiling and chatting.

At some point the conversation turns a bit personal, painful, and she hides her smoking hand under the table. As she talks, she draws her cigarette to her left hand and steadily holds the lit cigarette against her skin and starts burning it. She holds the pain in. It’s under control. She is feeling relief. A kind of distraction from the feelings the conversation brings up

The burn, after about a minute, turns white. As large as a five cent coin. She is still hiding her hand under the table. Her face shows nothing all the while. No pain, not a twitch. Her boyfriend notices nothing. That girl, was me.

Self-injury, left untreated can happen in adulthood too

It’s all about relief

The young woman – me – hadn’t learnt how to deal with her feelings, with pain, with life. That was the only way she knew how to find relief. I now know I wasn´t alone in feeling that way.

Many young adults and mostly teens, suffer from this disorder. Self loathing, self-harm. Examples of self-harm: drinking, taking drugs, bingeing.

Overtly physical self-harm:

  • Carving, scratching
  • branding
  • marking
  • picking, and pulling skin and hair
  • burning/abrasions
  • cutting
  • biting
  • head banging
  • bruising
  • hitting
  • tattooing
  • excessive body piercing

Surprising numbers

According to Cornell University about 17 percent of college students, 20 percent of women and 14 percent of men have cut, burned, carved or harmed themselves in other ways, reports a new survey.

These types are much less popularly disclosed. One percent of young people who practice self harm, keep doing it way into adulthood. A percentage of these end up committing suicide since few seek help.

Suicide numbers have gone up in the last 40 years. Why? Maybe because society is less forgiving, more aggressive, more judgmental, expecting success and exerting more pressure to succeed, to be happy, be strong, hide feelings.

Adolescence: that fragile time

Adolescence is marked by taking risks, pushing limits, rebelling, rejecting adults values. Trying to find your own identity in a world that fights against individuality. Adolescents crave acceptance, belonging, at a very confusing time. This is normal. Most of us have gone through this phase and survived.

Coping with pain

Other adolescents have a harder time coping because of their upbringing. Maybe they were abused in childhood, were abandoned. These adolescents may not know how to express their feelings, tension, pain, discomfort, and anger. Self-harm is a way to cope with anger, frustration, feelings of worthlessness, suicidal thoughts. Some feel numb having hidden their feelings for so long, they have deadened them and found self-harm, as a way to feel something, anything, but something.

Self-harm releases the tension of living and many find solace through self inflicted pain. However, this relief is shortly lived and may become addictive according to an article in The New York Times. Also mentioning some celebrities who have indulged in this unhealthy practice, like Angelina Jolie.

Other  underlying reasons could be due to mental conditions, stress, depression, anxiety. Some who suffer from, psychosis, PTSD and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia and a host of mental illnesses.

If you are a parent or friend and suspect self-harm:

Signs to look out for:

  • Wears long sleeves year round, even in hot weather
  • Avoids undressing in front of other people at the gym, for example
  • Avoids going to the doctor and undressing for a check up
  • Spends a lot of time locked up in her room
  • Keeps a collection of sharp objects like razor blades
  • May find blood stains on clothes or sheets for no apparent reason
  • Avoids summer family trips to the beach or the pool
  • Constantly has accidents, and sports cuts,  bruises or burns she finds difficult to explain. Usually, she offers long-winded explanations. This is a sign of lying.
  • Is sad and angry often
  • Listens to very dark and sad music
  • Locks his/her room when she/he leaves the house

How to help and encourage a problem teen if you suspect  self-harm:

  • Talk, communicate, offer to listen
  • Sharing feelings or activities which will promote talking
  • Be reassuring
  • Try to encourage them to talk and don’t look shocked if they confess they self-injury
  • Give them positive feedback
  • Keep an eye on his/her friends
  • Check on how he/she is doing in school.
  • Talk to teachers often
  • Listen and be interested in everything they have to say
  • If you find out he/she is self injuring, don’t blow up and be angry. Try to be understanding, talk about it and help her seek professional help.

I know what I’m talking about, and yes, you recover, and forget this actually was a part of you! Most teens who engage in this behavior outgrow it. But indeed, the causes have to be dealt with.

A film to watch: Sad but does explain self-harm to an extreme. “Secretary” . To me, it’s a love story. But, that’s me. Cautionary: the content may affect very sensitive people.

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