Cutting, self-harm and self-mutilation, like many other phenomena in teen culture and experience are not only symptomatic of deeper core issues but have also proven to be highly addictive behaviors. Many teens say that once they start, it is very difficult to stop. Self Harm (SH) or Deliberate Self Harm (DSH) is usually not done with the intention of committing suicide even though the cuts and injuries are often found on the wrists and arms. For most, cutting is a way of coping with life and finding release and relief from emotional pain and stress. Many “cutters” use their stomaches, legs and other places that are not readily noticed by family or loved ones.
What exactly is self harm? Self harm could be defined as using an object like a knife, razor blade, scissors, needles etc. to inflict pain or cut oneself. However, other things like anorexia, bulimia, and burning oneself with lighters, matches or rubber erasers can be considered as self harm. There are other derivatives of SH that involve breaking bones, ingesting non-food items, and “embedding”, which is implanting an item underneath the skin, almost like a protruding tattoo.
Why am I writing an article on self-harm? I have had a few “cutters” in youth groups in the past but nothing really serious. However, recently through Nathan Smoker, the V2H intern the subject has come to light again.
Nathan is a great guy. He’s fun-loving, creative and enjoys anime like no other. He’s from a Christian family and been involved in church all of his life and yet he’s grappled with self-harm and cutting to a great degree. For more information on Nathan and his story, click here: http://nathansmoker.wordpress.com/
As I have been learning about help for self-harmers here are some of my observations:
1) Self-harmers desire to live. In fact, we all desire to live. Hold someone’s head under water and they will fight to get a breath of air. Although some self-harmers contemplate suicide at times, self-harm is actually a cry to be alive and to feel alive. Because so many who cut feel numb and dead inside, cutting and SH is a way of feeling alive. The pain reminds them they do have feelings, they do bleed, and they are alive! When we interact with teens and especially those who cut, we need to validate their worth, value and identity in Christ, especially. Helping cutters realize that there is a purpose for their lives and giving them something to pour themselves into can be very helpful in bringing life and making them feeling alive. We all long for purpose. Cutters are looking for purpose in their pain and looking for a reason to continue living. Let’s give them one!
2) Self-harmers desire to escape. The pain or emotions they are experiencing can be so intense that the cutting and releasing of blood can seem therapeutic and even be euphoric at times. Often cutters who are experiencing negative feelings withdraw into their rooms or isolate themselves from others to try and “medicate” or stimulate themselves in ways that can ease the pain. Finding ways to engage students in activity that is healthy, productive and communal is a great way to help those who have negative home situations or pasts. Being involved in their lives in positive group situations can bring healing and hope. We all long for and were created for meaningful relationships. We need to create meaningful circles of care and concern where cutters can share their feelings, not be isolated or feel rejected. Having such a “safe place” with safe people is important for all of us!
3) Self-harmers desire someone’s attention. Although many of us would be reluctant to admit it: to some extent we all want someone else’s attention at some point. Just because someone is cutting doesn’t mean that it’s all because they are deliberately seeking attention but it is a way to get attention for some. It is a natural thing for us to want and desire for others to care about us.When we are made aware that someone is cutting, we need to make sure we give them the right and proper attention. We also need to help the cutter understand that there are right ways to get the attention they desire. Helping them find ways to communicate and express their wants,desires, and feelings, is crucial in helping the cutter get beyond the pain. We all want to be loved and feel loved. We all want to belong. Let’s make sure we give people the attention they need.
As we learn more and more about this form of addiction and coping, we cannot underestimate the power of prayer and the importance of helping kids connect with their God and each other. At the core of every addictive behavior and sin is a God-given desire or need that is being unmet or satisfied in an unhealthy way. As you come across students who deal with SH and cutting, let me encourage you to take a proactive role in listening and engaging them. There is no way I could ever overstate the value and power of simply being available to someone who is cutting themselves open just hoping someone would let them in.