A recent Los Angeles Times expose revealed that a growing number of teens and young adults, some with no prior psychiatric history, are turning to self-inflicted injury as a means to cope with......stress. They are not just cutting themselves, a behavior that has in the past been identified in the teen community, but also deliberately embedding needles, paper clips or staples into their skin. They are also burning and biting their bodies. An expert on self-injury from Cornell University is baffled to be finding these behaviors not only increasing, but entrenching themselves in otherwise well -adjusted, healthy teens and young adults.
The latest studies seem to show that between 15%-22% of all teens have injured themselves at least once during their lifetime. One study of 94 girls showed that 50% of them had injured themselves art least once in the past. But the behavior recently seems to be growing among the adult population as well.
Why hurt yourself? The explanation seems to lie in externalizing the pain within by causing pain without. The behavior of self-injury may be a coping mechanism for serious emotional trauma. And most professionals who treat these patients do agree that it may be a short term or temporary "management tool" for those seeking to relieve incredibly overwhelming emotional feelings. Clearly this is an upsetting concept for many - because it means that someone who is already anxious, stressed or in tru emotional pain - is adding more pain to teh mix, in the form of physically hurting themselves. Of course we want to identify these young people and adults quickly to help avert this behavior and give them the help they so desperately need.
For others, inflicting pain may be a way to "feel" when they otherwise live in a world of deadness inside. And when they draw actual blood, they may see it as a representation of life and living, when they have been stuck in a non-emotional mood. What is extremely disturbing to professionals is the fact that the disorder can be a gateway for some, to suicide. In a small number of cases it seems that the more you are able to tolerate self-inflicted pain, the easier it becomes to tolerate the ultimate pain - killing oneself. So this becomes a true "wake up call" to physicians and even family members and friends to separate out the less serious patients from those with more significant and dangerous psychiatric illness. So doctors who see patients with repeat episodes of embedded objects (like wood and glass shards, crayons, small pebbles, paper clips and staples and other objects), should consider "self-injury" as a possible diagnosis - especially when the patient is a teen or young adult. And often, in those cases, the condition is less serious - simply a new way of coping with stress, in which case the doctor can start a gentle dialogue with the patient and help decide if therapy is indeed needed.
What's important for all of us to realize is that someone who is self-injuring may even be simply calling out for help, in the most obvious way. It is, in a way, comforting to know that only a small select group may have serious inclinations to suicidal ideology. And, as i pointed out, we do need to identify these individuals and try to get them immediate, possibly long term help. There's no doubt that this generation of young people is being faced with enormous financial, educational and societal pressures. Hopefully raising awareness about this condition will bring help to these patients at an earlier stage of their illness.
Published On: December 09, 2008