October 10th, 2017. Sophomore year.
I was convinced my roommate hated me because I kept unplugging her pumpkin wall air-freshener when my RA first texted me. She wanted to meet about some concerns that were brought up. I was annoyed, really annoyed. With a mix of confusion and embarrassment, I reluctantly scheduled a time to visit my RA the next night to talk.
That day, I quickly realized that it might be more than an air-freshener bothering her when I was told that I would be meeting directly with the RD instead. My mind raced. I sat in O’Neill, staring at my phone, recounting every single action I had made during the past 2 weeks. What could I possibly be in this much trouble for?
The RD wasn’t even mine. I walked into Stayer with shaking hands that Wednesday night. Afraid and confused, I dug what was left of my chewed nails into the flesh of my palm. My ID did not badge me into the building, so I waited for a minute for a student to come, before giving up and knocking on the door. A man I’d never seen before jogged out of his office with a smile. He asked me how I was doing. I wasn’t doing fine, but I told him I was anyways.
We sat down in silence. I finally had the courage to speak up and ask, “So, what am I in trouble for?”. He interjected with some, “no, no, no’s,” followed by, “you’re not in trouble at all, your roommates expressed some worries about you.” My heart sank to my gut. I knew that I wasn’t feeling my best right now, but I wasn’t prepared for what he was going to say next: “I have to ask you, have you been hurting yourself?”
March 1st, 2020; self-harm awareness day.
15% of college students report engaging in non-suicidal self-injury at least once. 1 out of every 5 adolescents has reported inflicting harm on purpose to ease emotional pain. It’s about time we erase the stigma surrounding self-harm and educate each other in order to understand and help those who are struggling.
Self-harm is not a mental illness, though it may be considered a symptom of disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, anxiety, eating disorders, and addiction. Only within the last 5 years has sufficient research been dedicated to understanding the motives behind self-injury. This exemplifies how isolated and stigmatized the behavior is; “we can often focus on the problems self-injury causes and the reasons why we feel someone should stop” (Dr. Pete Taylor, The University of Manchester). This kind of behavior has been thought to affect the most troubled and severely impaired patients, and, “when youngsters who injure themselves seek help, they are often met with alarm, misunderstanding and overreaction” (Carey, NYT). Research shows that the general population is personally affected by self-destructive behavior and are just now getting a better handle on what is happening.
Self-harm, clinically known as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), means exactly what it stands for. Although often thought of as a failed suicide attempt, it is a behavioral coping mechanism used to help a person continue living. During an emotional time, self-harm can be used as a method to temporarily feel better by physically expressing and releasing the tension and the pain held within. The immediate chemical endorphins released during the act trigger feelings of relaxation and often happiness. In fact, according to Dr. Whitcock, an author of “Healing Self-Injury: A Guide for Parents,” “About 3 in 4 continue, and the frequency tends to go up and down, as people go in and out of various stages.” After the first time, 75% will repeat the behavior.
Participants of self-harm find some level of comfort in the act, so shaming is likely to have no effect. Cutting, burning, hitting, bruising, picking, scratching, etc. oneself becomes consoling. It gives power and control to the engager when they likely feel completely out of control otherwise. This psychological release, “either physical or social pain is called “pain-offset relief,” and by most accounts from those who self-harm, the use of one to blunt the other can become addictive” (Carey, NYT).
Recently Pete Davidson confessed in an interview that he cut himself. “I cut myself, so that’s why I started getting tats on my chest to cover them. It’s just like a release, it’s just something like if you can’t get a tattoo… it’s never in any spot that’s serious… it’s just, whenever you’re so manic and upset sometimes that’s the only thing that would work for me.” Pete admits to cutting in order to feel control in his mind and body. But other causes or motivations for self-harm include the desire to experience a feeling in the face of numbness, express needs, distract from other problems, create visible and noticeable wounds, purify oneself, reenact a trauma in order to resolve it, and to protect others from emotional pain. Self-harm can mean something different for everyone. Let’s listen to them.
We need to put away our misconceptions of self-harm to fully give the best support to anyone who is going through something involving the behavior. Instead of rearing with anger, trying to minimize the gravity of the situation, or think that the person self-harming is manipulating us, “coming from a place of support and curiosity, opening up conversation about what might be going on for them and at the same time engaging them in other strategies to manage some of those big feelings or things that are going on” (Ariel Huabrich, mental health educator). Showing signs of curiosity instead of fear will help uncover the underlying issues.
When approaching or approached by someone who engages in self-injury, it is important to remain calm and caring, and to accept the person even if you do not accept the behavior. I was angry to see that other news sources labeled Pete Davidson as a “cutter.” This demonizes the person by identifying them by their lowest feelings and behaviors. Knowing that this represents a way of dealing with emotional pain, instead of the person, is key. Avoid panic and overreaction. Showing shock and revulsion for what they’ve done may cause the person to feel more shame and guilt, proliferating the behavior. Another thing to keep in mind is that you should never ask them to recount the self-injury experience in detail because it could trigger another session. Offering help reaching out to a qualified mental health professional and extending unconditional support are routes you can never go wrong with.
October 14th, 2018. My direct roommate moved out after having a short conversation about my biggest secret. Things could have gone very differently if my friends approached me directly so they could have known that I have been struggling off and on since 8th grade, and I was in the process of seeking professional health. It’s better to not be afraid of the topic and to approach it with care. Nonetheless, I am thankful they showed their care in one way, even if it wasn’t the best way.
I am not proud of the scars on my legs. I do not condone the behavior, and I never encourage it. However, I do recognize that the urge is there and many people struggle behind closed doors. Mental illness demands attention, including the more “extreme” or hard to fathom effects. We need to educate ourselves and our youth to prevent harmful behaviors, and normalize seeking help for something that is often considered shameful, secret, or scary to others. Everyone deserves the help they need.
You are never alone.
For more information or if you or someone you know is suffering from self-injury, the following resources are extremely useful:
- https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/self-injury/self-injury-homepage – General information and guided help for family and friends.
- https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/cutting-and-self-harm.htm – General information and tips for alternative coping mechanisms/recovery.
- http://www.selfinjury.com – Referrals and services for self-destructive behavior recovery.
- To Write Love On Her Arms (http://www.TWLOHA.com) - A non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide.
- 1-800-273-TALK – A 24-hour crisis hotline if you're about to self-harm or are in an emergency situation.
- 1-800-DON'T-CUT – Phone for information and resources.
- 1-800-SUICIDE – Hotline for people contemplating suicide.
- 1-800-334-HELP – Self Injury Foundation's 24-hour national crisis line.
- 1-800-799-SAFE – Domestic violence hotline.
- 1-877-332-7333 – Real Help For Teens' helpline.