DALLAS (ABP) — Why would teenagers cut their bodies on purpose?
Cutting — and other forms of self-mutilation — cause physical pain that teens can deal with, blocking out emotional hurt they feel unable to handle, says Dallas counselor Carrie Beaird.
Even churchgoing teens can be involved in cutting, said Beaird, a former college minister. The youth ministers who heard her speak at a recent seminar agree. More than half of those in attendance said they had had firsthand contact with youth who cut themselves.
“Some cut to make sure they are alive,” Beaird said. “They are in so much pain they feel dead and want to make sure they are alive. If it hurts and they bleed, they must be alive.”
Typical cutting items include razors, safety pins, wall tacks, knives or other sharp kitchen utensils, paper clips, pencil lead, watch or belt clasps and even the wire from spiral notebooks, she said.
Teens start cutting in a variety of ways. They may accidentally cut themselves the first time, may get so angry they cut themselves and find they like the sensation, or may hear about it from a friend. But for some, it becomes a compulsion they seem unable to resist.
Some say it is as if someone else's hand is doing the cutting and they have no control to stop it, Beaird said.
An obsessive-compulsive disorder such as cutting is hard for most people to fathom, Beaird admitted. “If you understand it, you probably have it,” she said.
Most cutters are secretive about it with adults, but they generally are not as shy with friends, Beaird said. “When you have one cutter, you're going to have a cluster,” she said. “If someone is getting attention by cutting themselves, others are going to try it. So not all kids who cut themselves are OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). Some just want to get attention or be a part of the group.”
School classes and church youth groups can become cutting clusters, she noted.
For most, the fascination with cutting wanes. But teens with obsessive-compulsive disorder usually are not able to quit without help.
“Some try it because they hear it helps fight off this emotional pain, but after once or twice, say, 'This is dumb' and quit. Others go home from school every day and cut themselves.”
Cutters usually cut their arms and legs so the cuts can be covered up with clothing. Girls, who seem to be more prone to cutting, also will sometimes cut their breasts.
“If you see long sleeves during the middle of August, that could be a hint,” Beaird pointed out.
While the cuts are not usually deep, they are deep enough to cause bleeding and scarring. Some use the scars to make pictures or words.
At the cutting stage, most are not suicidal. The cuts are used as a release from pain, but “eventually it gets to the point of, What is the kid going to do next?” Beaird said. It's also possible for the cut to go deeper than anticipated and for accidental death or serious injury to occur.
“If you find out a student is cutting, you have to tell the parents,” she cautioned.
Cutting is a real problem on many college campuses “because Mom and Dad aren't there to see,” said Beaird.
Sometimes the teenager who seems to be “perfect” is cutting. “Kids can look perfect on the outside, but they often are looking for a secret. Cutting can be that secret,” Beaird said.
Toxic shame — an overwhelming feeling that not only are they bad people, but they never can be fixed — is a common trait of cutters, she added.
“Often it's not about anything they did, but just the way they feel about themselves. Ask them for 20 things that are good about themselves, and they honestly can't do it. They don't see anything good about themselves. They just see themselves as bad.
“Eighty percent of teenagers and college students will experience toxic shame at some point. Some for a few months, and some will carry it on into adulthood.”
Warning signs that a child, adolescent or teen may be a candidate to begin cutting themselves include always feeling they are bad, hitting themselves or banging their head on the walls.
“It's about a kid's belief system — that they are bad and that nothing is going to change that,” she said.
Youth ministers and parents can help by giving positive feedback and reminding teens they are loved and will not be abandoned, no matter what.
If they see themselves as having value and know that the people closest to them are going to love them unconditionally, they can begin to have hope. Hope that things can be better is central to treatment, she emphasized. Once they believe there is hope, a lot of them will participate in their treatment.
Treatment involves talking to discover root causes of self-esteem issues, removing sharp objects, and prescribing medication, which generally takes 14 to 21 days to become effective.
Family and friends can help by educating themselves about the disorder, making sure they get treatment, working with the therapist to safely diminish the compulsion and staying positive. Youth ministers also can play a part in the process.
“Let them know: 'I'm not going anyplace. I'm going to be here for you.' Often times that will give the young person the strength and encouragement they need to get started with the healing process,” Beaird said.