"Cutting," the very unhealthy practice of purposely scratching or cutting oneself with sharp objects, is a fairly uncommon behavior but continues to grab headlines as more teens take up cutting and other "non-suicidal self-injuries," or NSSI (that is, deliberate self-harm without the intention to commit suicide).
Now, a new study reports that nearly half of the 633 9th- to 12-graders surveyed said they'd inflicted non-suicidal self-injuries on themselves in the past year. According to the study, conducted by researchers at Brown Medical School, Weslyan University, and Louisiana State University, the kids intentionally hurt themselves an average of about 13 times in the past year.
Previous studies have shown that about 4% of the population has a history of non-suicidal self-injuries, but the numbers may be as high as 38% among college students, the researchers point out.
Of the teens in this study who self-injured, 60% had hurt themselves moderately or severely (by cutting, carving, self-tattooing, burning with cigarettes, scraping, or erasing their skin). And those teens were more likely to have a history of mental health problems, suicide attempts, or suicidal thoughts than both the students who hadn't self-injured and those who'd given themselves only minor injuries (like hitting, pulling hair, biting, and inserting things under the nails or skin).
A Closer Look at Self-Injuries
Although hurting yourself on purpose isn't an illness in itself, it's sometimes a symptom of a mental health problem like depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, obsessive thinking, or compulsive behaviors.
But teens who injure themselves intentionally don't usually mean to cause permanent harm. And most aren't attempting suicide — self-injury is usually just a teen's attempt at feeling better.
Teens may inflict their injuries as an unhealthy way of:
- managing pressure or strong feelings (like anger, anxiety, guilt, shame, frustration, loneliness, self-hatred, alienation, numbness, or emptiness)
- gaining a sense of control over a situation (like bad relationships or traumatic experiences such as abuse, violence, or a disaster)
- punishing themselves
- getting a reaction or attention from others
Teens who self-injure may not know better ways to deal with emotional pain or pressure. When intense feelings don't get expressed in a healthy way, tension can build up and it may seem unbearable. So, teens may hurt themselves in an attempt to relieve that extreme tension.
What This Means to You
To help kids of all ages develop skills for managing their emotions, solving their problems, and dealing with life's challenges:
- Regularly talk to them about their worries, fears, and pressures. Really listen and show that you're interested and you understand — don't downplay their concerns or make them feel like it's just a phase.
- Let them know you're always there for them, even if they don't feel like talking. Do other things together instead — take a walk, watch a movie, or shoot some hoops.
- Suggest positive ways to relieve stress on their own — doing breathing exercises, listening to music, writing in a journal, or exercising.
- Make sure they have a strong support system inside and outside the home — friends, relatives, or trusted adults (like school counselors or nurses).
And if you see signs of self-injury (like strange marks or wounds that reappear or never heal, or kids wearing long sleeves, even in warm weather) ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health professional, who can help kids learn how to deal with their problems and cope with their emotions in a healthy way.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2007
Source: "Characteristics and functions of non-suicidal self-injury in a community sample of adolescents," Psychological Medicine, August 2007.