Do you know someone who cuts, burns, picks, or otherwise harms themselves? Self mutilation is a common occurrence among adolescents. I see the beginnings of it in children who are in middle school. One youth will try the behavior and then tell others to try it. For some of these youth the behavior fits and they will continue to self mutilate. For others the behavior will feel adverse and self mutilation will not continue. Types of self mutilation include cutting, burning, interfering with wound healing, purposely hitting self, and other forms of self harm.
What are the reasons why individuals cut themselves? When a youth is living with emotional pain either from living in an unhappy home, being bullied at school, is depressed, or experiencing other emotional stress, self mutilation becomes a coping skill when the youth knows no other way to soothe him or herself. Cutting becomes a way to distract the individual from the emotional pain. The pain becomes focused on the physical pain or sensation of self mutilation. For some individuals they may be genetically predisposed to experiencing an endorphin rush, similar to a runner’s high, when they self mutilate. When the behavior produces this effect the individual learns when he or she is experiencing emotional pain, self mutilation will bring relief. Unfortunately, the behavior becomes excessive or addictive for these individuals. There is a relief from the internal, emotional pain for the self mutilator.
Self mutilation is different from suicidal behavior. With suicidal behavior the individual has the intention of taking his or her life. In self mutilation the individual has the intention of feeling better. However, self mutilation can lead to serious self harm, especially if the individual is under the influence of substances or is dissociating as a response to trauma. When individuals self harm the behavior may become more severe over time. Cuts may become deeper and wounds may become more severe. Individuals who self mutilate should be seen by a professional.
When I work with individuals who self mutilate I help the individual to learn healthy coping skills to use in place of the self mutilation. I also help the individual to explore the emotional pain he or she is experiencing and to connect with others who may be able to assist in alleviating the painful situation. The earlier the behavior is caught and the individual receives help the better. Although self mutilating may continue into adulthood youth who receive professional help have a good chance of ceasing the harmful behavior of self mutilation.