I recently attended a lecture in a nearby community. The lecture was titled “Cutting and Self-Harm in Adolescents”, a topic that holds my attention for both its frequency and how misunderstood it is. When I arrived, the lecturer began by discussing a recent cluster of teen suicides in their community. That county has the highest rate of suicide in the country and it was having an effect on the community. Each person who was in attendance has some stake in this matter and was deeply concerned about the teens in their community. The topic never did shift back to cutting or self harm and I can fully understand why. Teen suicide is a big problem in America these people were coming together in hopes of finding answers.
I did come away with a twingy feeling of concern, however. Why did a conference that was supposed to be about self-harm and cutting turn instead to teen suicide? And why did everyone in the room feel that it was a natural progression of topics? I questioned this because the vast majority of teens who self-harm are NOT suicidal. The behavior is driven from difference motivations completely. I think it is very important for parents, teachers and law enforcement to understand this difference. Many adults assume that if a teen is cutting, they are suicidal and react accordingly, but that it just not true. Cutting is a tool that teens use to ease emotional or psychological pain. They are not trying to kill themselves. For many of these teens, their internal feelings are very painful and overwhelming. They do not have a healthy way to cope with these feelings. When they inflict physical harm on themselves, the physical pain overrides the emotional pain, and provides relief.
The most at-risk population for self harm is White, middle to upper class, suburban, high-achieving females. They are generally seen as ‘good-girls’ and can be very adept at hiding their self harming behavior. However, self harm does not happen to just this cohort. 2 million people in the US are self-injurers and they come from every race, religion, culture and age bracket.
A somewhat newer development in the world of self-harming adolescents is that is no longer taboo. Self-harm, particularly cutting, has become cool. Girls are now cutting simply because their friends are doing it. In some circles, cutting is a right of passage and status symbol.