The two most common reasons for self-injuring are 1) to control the extremely painful and frightening experiences of overwhelming emotions, and/or 2) escape from awful feelings of being numb and empty. Self-injury is not a cry for attention, it a way to regain emotional balance, it is a solution to the extremely disturbing emotional problem of feeling out of control, and it works. It can be considered an effective coping skill, just not a healthy coping skill. March 1 was Self-injurious Awareness Day, so let’s address the myths behind self-injurious behaviors according to the book, “Helping Teens who Cut: Understanding and Ending Self-Injury” by Dr. Michael Hollander, Ph.D.
MYTH 1 -They do it to get attention. According to some researcher, less than 4% of adolescents deliberating hurt themselves to get attention. It is the most common reason that parent and some therapy give account for the behavior despite the fact that often an adolescent is self-injurious for months before an adult even notice. The misconception of this kind derails treatment and prolongs both the adolescent’s and the parents’ distress.
MYTH 2 – Everyone is doing it. Deliberate self-injury has been part of the adolescent scene for many years. Many therapists suggest that self-injurious behaviors are on the rise. These are three possible reasons why self-harm is the rise a) deliberate self-injurious has often been mistakenly documented as a suicide attempt, b) no firm criteria due to the narrow to board view of what of what constitutes non-suicidal self-injury and c) Adolescences seem less secretive about it.
MYTH 3 – PEER PRESSURE is the Main Culprit. While those who cut themselves are often friends with others who do the same, peer pressure probably has little effect on keeping the behavior going. People use their peer groups to air their problems. People and Adolescent, in particular, don’t start injuring themselves because of the influences of friends; they are more likely to choose friends who share their behaviors. Therefore, it is not unusual for one teen to tell another about her personal experience with self-injury or to let on that another friend has tried it. Preliminary research suggests that 52% of adolescents learn about self-injuries from a friend or media.
MYTH 4 – Drugs and Alcohol Increase the likelihood of self-injury. Self-injury soothes emotional distress, just as drugs and alcohol do. So the behavior, especially in a person who self-injures as a way to regulate emotions, would rarely be triggered by drug or alcohol use.
MYTH 5 – Certain Kids Manage Physical Pain More Easily than Emotional Pain. When adolescents are asked about the self-injurious behaviors shared that it is easier for them to bear physical pain than emotional pain. However, when you ask an adolescent does their self –injurious behavior hurt, the typical answer is NO. How can it be easier to manage physical pain than emotional pain if there is no physical pain? When the mechanism that provides the relief for this teen has to do with the neuropsychological effect of self-injury some people experience when they are in an intense emotional state. This sense of soothing is the most common experience during the moment of self-injury. It seems that when emotional revved up, there is a sense of calmness and relief when skin tissue is damaged.
MYTH 6 – It’s a Failed Suicide Attempt. More often than not, deliberate self-harm is not a failed or half-hearted suicide attempt. Those people who self-injure themselves may do so as a type of suicide prevention. Most therapists are better able to differentiate self-injury from self-harm with the intent to die. It is critical that any person who is self-injuring undergo a thorough suicidal assessment by a qualified professional.
March 1 was Self Injury Awareness Day and I hope that this brief article shed light on the myths bout Self-injury. For additional information regarding assessments and treatment, please contact a qualified mental health professional in your area.
Check out these resources for further education:
S.A.F.E. Alternative – www.selfinjury.com
Adolescent Self-Injury Foundation (ASIF) – www.adolescentselfinjuryfoundation.com
Hollander, Micheal. Helping teens who cut: understanding and ending self-injury. (2008)
Shapiro, Lawrence. Stopping the Pain: a workbook for teens who cut & self-injure. (2008)
By Shayla Peterson, LCSW