1. 1.5 percent of all Americans deliberately harm themselves.
2. 12 percent of college students admit to harming themselves.
3. 60-70 percent of self-injurers are female.
4. 35-80 percent also battle eating disorders.
5. Self-injury usually starts in adolescence and lasts between five to ten years-longer if untreated.
6. 90 percent of self-injurers begin cutting/burning as teens; their struggle often extends into their mid-20’s to early 30’s.
A disturbing situation has emerged among teens: the practice of self-mutilation. Teenagers who self-mutilate – overwhelmingly girls – are inflicting pain and injuries on their own bodies. While it’s estimated that only one percent of the American population self-mutilates, the emotional issues that drive them – and the physical fall-out from such practices as cutting and burning – make self-mutilation a serious problem.
Types of Self-Mutilation
Cutting is but one of the self-mutilating behaviors adolescents may exhibit. Other common practices of self-mutilating behaviors include burning, bruising, breaking of bones (especially digits), picking at the skin or "wound interference" (the practice of producing a wound and not allowing it to heal).
What Causes Self-Mutilation?
There is no stereotypical person who will choose to mutilate his or her own body, but experts say it’s a process that stems from the inability to deal with stress or intense emotions.
"Self-mutilation is a desperate attempt to have some control over unbearable feelings of aloneness, loneliness and helplessness," says Dr. Margaret Paul, a book that examines self-mutilation. "When a teen or young adult has not learned healthy ways of managing these intense feelings, they turn to physical pain as a way to blot out the emotional pain or gain a sense of control over the pain they feel. In a strange way, they are really not trying to hurt themselves – they are trying to protect themselves from something even more painful than the physical pain."
According to SAFE-Alternatives, an organization that helps self-mutilators, those who practice it say they do it when they feel fear, anger, guilt, sadness, anxiety or other emotions that are just too much to handle. Those who self-mutilate often feel they can’t express themselves verbally or otherwise. As these feelings remain inside, they build up to dangerous levels and can eventually result in self-mutilating behavior.
"Cutting is physically painful – it hurts," says Dr. Paul. "But to a mutilator it’s absorbing. It’s doing something. It’s controlling something. It’s causing something. It’s making it happen and not being at the effect of outside forces over which they feel like they have no control."
When parents learn a child is hurting herself, they often feel helpless.
According to SAFE-Alternatives, most adolescents who self-mutilate tend to be perfectionists. They feel they must live up to or exceed the standards set for them by their parents and peers. When they are unable to do this, their emotions become confusing, and they tend to result to what they know – causing harm to their own bodies.
"Children are put under a huge pressure to perform," Paul says. "They have to perform in all aspects of their lives. They have to do well in school; they have to get good grades; they have to have enough friends; they have to look a certain way. There are these huge pressures on them to look and perform in certain ways, and they are often not seen for who they are."
What Can Parents Do
Parents may discard their child’s altered behavior as a phase or something that will pass. And the "weirdness" of the behavior might induce a "taboo" effect – parents will often approach the issue timidly.
"Their parents don’t even begin to know how to see [the kids] for who they are," says Dr. Paul. "So even if the parent tries to go and talk to [the child], they are talking different languages. The parent isn’t really getting what the child is truly feeling, what the pressures are, what the fears are, what the stressors are, what the overwhelming feelings are about. These feelings can get so intense as to be unbearable that the child wants to jump out of their skin. A parent doesn’t want to hear that. They want to know that their child is normal and that all is well."
Parents should not assume they are the cause of the stress in the child’s life. Adolescents experience intense stress in places other than the home such as school and work. "Although the home environment needs to support what’s going on with the child, it’s not always that the parents are hypercontrolling or unavailable," says Dr. Paul. "It may be that [the parents] don’t understand what’s going on at school o
r what’s going on with peers or how to help their child."
What to Look For
There are signs parents can watch for if they suspect their adolescent may be practicing self-mutilating behaviors. Unexplained or frequent injuries, wearing jeans, long pants or long sleeves consistently – even in warm or hot weather – exhibiting the want for isolation or "being alone" and the presence of blood stains on the inside of clothing may be clues into a child’s self-mutilating behavior.
These behaviors are not attempts at suicide. They are attempts to gain control over life. "Self-mutilating behaviors, as well as eating disorders, drug or alcohol use and extreme violent behavior are all cries for help," Dr. Paul says. "These kids are saying, ‘I don’t know what to do, so this is what I do instead. And don’t try to take it away from me because it is all I have.’ There is no place where we learn how to manage our intense fear, anxiety, hurt, anger, depression or whatever the feeling is. There is no one place that teaches that. A person must find a method that works for them. Whether spiritual meditation, breathing or something else that helps an adolescent manage inner stress, having the equipment to deal or cope is the first step in gaining control."
"What does the Bible say about self-mutilation / cutting?"
In the Old Testament of the Bible, self-mutilation was a common practice among false religions. 1 Kings 18:24-29 describes a ritual in which those who worshiped the false god Baal slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom. Because of the traditions of pagans, God made a law against this sort of practice.
Leviticus 19:28 says, “You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead nor make any tattoo marks on yourselves: I am the LORD.”
In the New Testament, cutting oneself was associated with someone who was possessed by demons (Mark 5:2-5). It was characteristic of behavior caused by evil spirits. Today, self-mutilation is rarely used for ritualistic practices or actual demon possession, but instead usually by teen-agers and young adults who have misplaced anger and pain that they are attempting to work out in self-destructive ways. Instead of dealing with emotional pain, some people would rather bring themselves physical pain, which actually serves as a relief from stress. Unfortunately, though, this sense of relief is quite short-lived, and the feeling of wanting to be more self-destructive quickly returns.
The Bible doesn’t talk about self-mutilation in terms of depression or anxiety, but it is very important that whoever is making a practice of this seeks immediate psychological (and hopefully Christian) counseling. This behavior also indicates, or can lead to, drug and/or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, identity disorders, and suicidal thoughts or even attempts.
1 Corinthians 6:19 tells us how important our bodies are to the Lord. We no longer belong to ourselves, but instead we belong to Christ, who purchased us at a high price. We should not abuse one of the greatest gifts we have been given.
A person who is struggling with self-mutilation should seek immediate counsel from a pastor and/or Christian counselor. Self-mutilation is the result of an incorrect view of yourself and of your personal value to God. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a proper understanding of His love is the only true cure for self-mutilation
Why even Christian teens aren’t immune from the epidemic of self-mutilation
—and what you can do.
A Troubling Trend
This behavior has many names: cutting, self-injury, self-mutilation, self-violence. It includes not only cutting but also scratching, picking scabs, burning, punching, bruising or breaking bones, or pulling out hair. Though death isn’t the goal of this deliberate, repetitive harm to one’s body, it can cause scarring, infection, and even fatality if a cut goes too deep or an infection isn’t treated.
Self-injury crosses economic brackets, education, race, gender, and age. But the majority of those involved are middle- to upper-class adolescent girls. Exact statistics are hard to pinpoint because the behavior often is hidden. But one thing’s clear: The growing trend of self-injury isn’t confined to teens outside the church.
"I know people whose self-injury started because they were so disgusted with themselves, they felt hurting themselves was the only logical thing to do."
"I felt rejected. My mother was a counselor but didn’t have time to talk to me. My father lived in a different state. Boyfriends failed me, and I didn’t know Jesus for whom he was. I wanted something I could control, a sense of power—and cutting gave me that."
When parents see the wounds on their teen’s arms, they often react in fear, shock, and anger. They threaten. They beg. They want it to stop. "Two common reactions are either to become furious at the teen and to punish her, or to minimize the behavior as a phase or bid for attention and to ignore it."
"Endorphins released during cutting often soothe some deeper emotional pain—rejection, depression, self-hatred, or helplessness," Vernick explains. A teen who self-injures finds instant release through the biochemical reaction and correlates cutting with comfort.
Lader describes self-injury as "self-medication." Cutters haven’t learned to express their emotions, so the feelings persist. "The teen uses physical pain to communicate something she’s unable or unwilling to put into words," explains Vernick. "She needs help to process whatever emotional pain she feels so she’ll learn healthy ways of dealing with hurts instead."
"It’s more prevalent among Christian teens than people like to think," she says. "Self-injury is just beginning to be recognized and treated in Christian circles. If you do it, you feel like a freak. You feel unlovable, as if you were beyond God’s grace. But a cutter needs to realize Jesus loves her as she is—and that his atonement is sufficient for her s
While self-injury can be a squeamish topic, it’s an important one. And no matter how this behavior appears to the outside world, God views these teens and their parents through a lens of worth.
- Meier Clinics 1-888-7clinic or www.meierclinics.com
- Suzanne Eller firstname.lastname@example.org
- Wendy Lader email@example.com
- Leslie Vernick LeslieVern@aol.com
- Lysamena firstname.lastname@example.org
- Lysamena Project on Self-Injury www.self-injury.org
- S.A.F.E. Alternatives 1-800-DONT-CUT or www.selfinjury.com
- Secret Shame www.palace.net/~llama/psych/injury.html
- Brooke Shewmaker email@example.com
- Cutting: Self-Injury and Emotional Pain (e-book) by Elaina Whittenhall (InterVarsity Press)
- Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation by Steven Levenkron (Norton)
- A Bright Red Scream by Marilee Strong (Viking)
- Bodily Harm by Karen Conterio and Wendy Lader (Hyperion)
24 Hour National Crisis Lines
Young Adult Crisis Hotline
Call Toll Free: 1-877-702-2GOD
800-273-TALK (8255) www.nmha.org
800-799-SAFE (7233) Domestic Violence Hotline
866-4-U-Trevor – for GLBTQ youth
877-332-7333 Teen Hotline
Need Help? 800-DONTCUT
S.A.F.E. ALTERNATIVES® is a nationally recognized treatment
approach, professional network, and educational resource base,
which is committed to helping you and others achieve an end
to self-injurious behavior. Self-injury is known by many names,
including self-abuse, self-mutilation, deliberate self-harm.