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Deeply Wounded: Understanding Teens Who Self-Harm

Tears fall in the dark and sniffles echo in an empty room. Dark thoughts penetrate her mind. The blade lies close by and it beckons her until she can no longer fight the urge and succumbs to it. With each cut she feels in control and free from the troublesome thoughts that race through her mind.

No one understands her pain. She masterfully conceals the marks on her arms with bracelets and loose articles of clothing. Unfortunately it is not just the scars that she hides; it’s also the emotional turmoil in which she lives day in and day out. Her scars reach beyond the flesh and into her aching heart.

Who is she? She is just one of the thousands of teens who self-harm to emotionally escape their pain. She is the deeply wounded youth in our nation.

What is Self-Harm?

Self-harm is the deliberate and purposeful act of injuring oneself without the intent of suicide. It most commonly begins during the teen years and can continue well into adulthood. The most common forms of self-harm include cutting, burning, punching oneself, scratching, and embedding objects into the skin. Any part of the body is susceptible to the branding of self-harm, but it is most often performed on the hands, wrists, stomach and thighs.

Like addiction, self-harm is a habitual behavior that isn’t easy to break alone.-Raychelle Lohmann

Most teens have learned how to hide the self-inflicted marks. Some are so ashamed about their secret that they constantly fidget with their clothing to make sure that they keep the marks covered. Many teens who harm themselves often have an immense sense of guilt afterwards. They may make empty promises to never do it again, only to face the same battle the next day. Like addiction, self-harm is a habitual behavior that isn’t easy to break alone.

How Many Teens Engage in Self-Harming Behavior?

Self-harm is increasing among teens, but the exact number is unknown. Below are some known statistics (Mental Health Foundation) regarding the prevalence of this destructive behavior:

  • Annually, 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males engage in self-harm
  • Approximately 90 percent of people who self-harm start in their teen years
  • Average age at onset is between 12 and 15 years
  • About 50 percent of those who self-harm begin around age 14
  • Approximately 10 percent of those who self-harm continue the behavior into adulthood
  • Approximately 2 million cases are reported each year in the U.S.

Do They Do it for Attention?

Self-harm is a far cry from seeking attention and more along the lines of a cry for help.-Raychelle C. Lohmann

Time and time again, these teens are accused of trying to get attention. But I ask how many of us would venture to lay a blade to our skin or penetrate our skin purposefully with an object? The mere thought of self-inflicting pain makes many of us cringe. If you ask these youth “Why?” very few if any will say because they want attention. According to the Mental Health Foundation and the Cornell Research Program only a small percentage of people who self-harm report doing it to get attention. Self-harm is a far cry from seeking attention and more along the lines of a cry for help.

The Psyche of Self-Harm

Think of self-harm as a monster that lurks in the crevices of the mind. It promises them they’ll feel better after the do the behavior, but they only feel worse. They don’t have another outlet, that they know of, to deal with their feelings. So they turn to self-harm as a way to regulate their emotions (National Institutes of Health). One of the most common reasons reported for self-harm was anger followed by the desire to forget about something painful. Other common responses for self-harming are to escape from anxiety and stress. It is disturbing to think that a youth, age 12 to 15 years, has to find a means to get away reality.

Some teens who self-harm say they do it to punish themselves for something in their past or for the thoughts that they have. What are they running from? There have been reports that those who use self-harm as a form of discipline feel that the release of blood is a symbolic means of emotional cleansing. What do they feel they did to deserve this type of punishment?

Long-Term Consequences

There are many dangers associated with self-harm aside from the physical ones. Self-harming behaviors can become ritualistic and habit forming. Many of the youth who engage in these behaviors struggle with depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders, but unfortunately they don’t get the help they need. So, they take matters into their own hands and continue to self-harm until it becomes an addiction.

Like a drug addict craves a substance, people who self-harm may be driven by a similar need. Just as substances alter a person’s biochemistry, so does self-harm. Emerging research has shown that self-harm produces a release of endorphins, which produces a natural high (Cornell). This euphoric feeling can become addictive. What started out as superficial wounds many become more severe as the individual seeks to achieve a high from the self-harm. And like an addict, they begin to build a tolerance to the pain, and dangerously need to harm a little more to achieve the high they received in the past.

Emerging research has shown that self-harm produces a release of endorphins, which produces a natural high.-Raychelle C. Lohmann

Self-harm is an addiction that requires professional help. Another danger of self-harm is linked to the use and abuse of substances (Brunel University). Many teens use drugs to help them feel better. There have been many reports of high rates of co-occurring self-injury and substance use. A recent study from the University of Bristol shows that if these young people don’t learn healthy coping skills, they may replace their destructive behavior with another one as they get older – like substance use, which may lead to abuse.

How to Treat a Wound

They say a wound has to heal from the inside out. Healing is a process and as the body begins to repair itself it needs to be cared for and protected. Sometimes the healing process can be a slow one, especially if the wound is deep. Just as our bodies need time to heal from a wound, so does our heart. Teens who self-harm need care and protection. They need to be taught healthy ways to cope with their emotions so that they don’t turn to substances. But most importantly, they to need to heal their deep wounds from the inside out.

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