Angelina Jolie was on Inside the Actors Studio last year and she mentioned that when she was younger and life got too painful for her, she used to cut herself. This remark was made by her almost in passing. It wasn’t questioned by host James Lipton. He didn’t ask her why or what she meant by cutting herself. Yet cutting, burning and other forms of self-injury are very serious issues around the world.
At any given time, one percent of the population is using or has used “self-inflicted physical injury as a means of coping with an overwhelming situation or feeling”, according to the American Self-Harm Information Clearinghouse. Self-injurers come from all walks of life; they are from every socio-economic group, from a diverse range of ethnicities and countries, from any sexual persuasion, from any level of education. Self-injurers can also be of any age and gender. The main thing they have in common is that they cut, self-abuse or self-mutilate in an effort to relieve themselves from pain or distress. And as the ASHIC website points out, “Self-mutilation implies falsely that the primary intent is to mark or maim the body, and in most cases this isn’t so.”
People start to self-injure for a variety reasons. They may have a biological predisposition to hurt themselves or a lack of experience dealing with strong emotions. Or they may have done something—picked at their skin, bit themselves or hit a wall—during a time of stress and realized that this action released some pent-up negative feelings. Because of this one-time, quick relief, the person may start to repeat the action in the middle of the next tense episode or the next time she needs to alter her mood. Preteens or teens who start this behavior may continue it for a long time, by wearing covering clothing or by always offering excuses as to how the injury happened, before someone realizes what they are doing.
If you are a teacher, a parent or a friend of a self-injurer, don’t get angry or tell the person what they are doing is stupid. You need to understand why the person feels the compulsion to do the behavior. What triggers his actions? Is something horrible going on in his life that needs to be addressed? Is he in an abusive situation or living in a place where emotional expression is forbidden or invalidated? Other coping mechanisms will need to be learned, especially if the person will have to continue being in the stressful situation. Help for self-injurers usually involves professional therapy. But self-injury, like any learned, addictive behavior, usually cannot be overcome by forced treatment or forced hospitalization; the self-injurer has to want help.
Some treatments use medications (mood enhancers, anti-depressants, anxiety calmers) to ease the urge to self-harm. Therapy and medicinal combination can be done on an inpatient basis with an understanding hospital staff, or on an outpatient basis with a psychiatrist or other medical professional.
The most important thing for you as a friend, a teacher or a family member of a self-injurer is to try not be frightened, isolated or feel helpless (things that the self-injurer may be feeling too). Know that support groups (in person and online) exist for self-injurers and their loved ones. Educate yourself about self-injury.
Visit LifeSigns’ website at http://www.selfharm.org, Self Injurers Anonymous at http://www.selfinjurers.com and Showing Our Scars at http://www.showingourscars.org for more information. Share the information you find with the self-injurer to let her know you understand, that you aren’t being judgmental and offer to help in any way you can.
Self-injury can be stopped, with the right tools. Angelia Jolie is just one success story of that.
Jill L. Ferguson is a professor, editor, writer, public speaker and the author of the novel Sometimes Art Can't Save You (published by In Your Face Ink, http://www.inyourfaceink.com) about a self-injuring teenage artist who struggles one summer to balance painting, friendship, sex, travel and family issues while still maintaining her health and sanity.
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