Roger’s article appeared on ksl.comcutting this week.  It identifies a problem that is common in far more families than we think.  Especially families touched by addiction or compulsive behaviors.

A definition presented by a Cornell University study is a bit chilling: “It is the deliberate, self-inflicted destruction of body tissue … commonly associated with scratching, cutting or carving the skin, banging or punching objects or oneself, and biting oneself. Most common locations for these injuries are arms, wrists, hands and thighs.”

It is called “cutting” and is being practiced by a surprising number of youth and young adults across the spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds. However, cutting is a private affair, done out of the sight and knowledge of others, and that makes studying it and defining “at-risk” groups more difficult.

Here is how one cutter explains it:

“Cutting is not done only by emo kids; it is a way to release emotional pain when it feels like you would explode otherwise. I was captain of my soccer team in high school, could be considered among the popular kids at my school, and have an extremely loving family. I still have the scars from my cutting. Although I was lucky enough to be able to stop, other people, such as my older sister, became addicted.

Using responses from more than 11,000 randomly selected students from eight colleges, Dr. Janis Whitlock of Cornell University sought to find out who was cutting and what related mental health conditions were present.

“Findings from this study have helped shed light on who self-injures and why. The research team found 15.3 percent of the participants reported a history of self-injury, and 6.8 percent had self-injured within the previous year. Most of the students (86.4 percent) who had self-injured had done so more than once, and nearly half (42.8 percent) reported self injuring more than six times. The average age for starting self-injury was 15.2 years of age.”

“Self-injury is an overlooked public health issue,” noted Whitlock. “Far from being a rare fringe behavior, it was surprisingly common among the adolescents and young adults we surveyed.”

The Mayo Clinic website points out that while self-harm is intended, it is typically not meant to be a suicide attempt: “Rather, self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.”

“While self-injury may bring a momentary sense of calm and a release of tension,” the web page continues, “It’s usually followed by guilt and shame and the return of painful emotions. Because self-injury is often done impulsively, it can be considered an impulse-control behavior problem. Self-injury may be linked to a variety of mental disorders, such as depression, eating disorders and borderline personality disorder.”

Whitlock’s study produced the following bullet points:

  • Females were more likely to participate in the behavior.
  • Females tend to cut or scratch wrists, arms or thighs.
  • Males are more likely to endorse punching objects with intention of hurting themselves.
  • Males more likely to be sensation-seeking, angry or under the influence of drugs.
  • Males more likely to engage in a social context rather than self injury alone.
  • Self-injury is a “red flag” for later suicide risk.

Emphasizing the secrecy aspect of cutting, Whitlock’s study found that “close to a quarter of the students with a history of self-injury indicated that no one knew about it. Even among those who had attended therapy for any reason, only about 17 percent had disclosed their self-injury to a health care provider.”

The most important protective factor, not surprisingly, is communication with parents. Conversely, the lack of communication with parents is a leading risk factor. Most cutters begin the behavior at about 14 years of age and “grow out” of cutting by the age 30.

Warning signs that a family member or friend is cutting or self-injuring:

  • Unexplained wounds or scars from cuts, bruises or burns, usually on the wrists, arms, thighs or chest.
  • Blood stains on clothing, towels or bedding; blood-soaked tissues.
  • Sharp objects or cutting instruments, such as razors, knives, needles, glass shards or bottle caps, in the person’s belongings.
  • Frequent “accidents.” Someone who self-harms may claim to be clumsy or have many mishaps in order to explain away injuries.
  • Covering up. A person who self-injures may insist on wearing long sleeves or long pants, even in hot weather.
  • Needing to be alone for long periods of time, especially in the bedroom or bathroom.
  • Isolation and irritability.

The words of our anonymous cutter bring a warning:

“Cutting is not something to mess around with. However, it is naive to dismiss cutting as simply a way to get attention. It is also naive to scorn those who seem to have perfect lives as being stupid for cutting. People do not choose to be depressed.”

Perhaps her following unedited words helps establish the view from the cutter’s perspective:

“how can you be so depressed? You’re so beautiful and so good at everything.” -me crying to my to my sister in an ambulance after one of her major cutting episodes

“that doesnt matter, tho. being pretty doesn’t change wut mood i’m in,” – my sister