Self-harm may be linked to drugs, sexual abuse

Q: A small group of teenage girls from our local high school is into cutting themselves. As much as they try to hide the scars on their arms and probably elsewhere, they can’t. And most of us know that this is going on but none of us understand it.

Why anyone on the verge of coming into life, leaving home, getting jobs, maybe even going to university, would waste their valuable time cutting and otherwise following a suicidal path is beyond me. Is there any rationale to this at all?

A: You are raising a concern that is shared by many. We seem to have a wave going on among young people where many are either cutting themselves or causing self-harm.

Studies tell us that about one in five girls between the ages of 14 and 20 have chosen self-harm. About one in seven boys have done the same.

This is not necessarily a suicidal thing. Young people who try suicide are challenging their right to live. For kids who cut or hurt themselves, the goal is to create pain. They are under the impression that the pain that they feel physically is more tolerable than the emotional or psychological pain with which they are living.

I am not convinced that our professional advisers fully understand what leads young people into self-harm.

Some researchers report that at least 50 percent of those who hurt themselves have been victims of sexual abuse. Others say that they have likely had frustrating and challenging childhoods.

Other researchers talk about substance abuse, eating disorders and impulsive and emotional personality disorders.

What is known for sure is that cutting, and some other forms of self-harm, are learned behaviours. Kids pick up the ideas either from other young people, television shows or preventive programs.

Any self-harm is a serious problem. Cutting can cause permanent scars and serious infection and can end with deadly results.

If you run into young people who are into cutting, try to take a deep breath before you do anything. The goal is to get them into the mental health system. They will not go there if they think that you are judging them or overreacting.

Be calm and patient and try to encourage them to either see their doctor or call a mental health team for support.

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