Cutting: Self Injury and How to Help

Copyright, Kaya Oakes, Original location

Millions of women cut or injure themselves — here’s how to understand why they do it and how to help.

My college roommate, a beautiful and intelligent young woman, always wore long-sleeved shirts — even on the hottest days of the summer.

When I asked her why, she shrugged and rolled up her sleeves. Her arms, from wrist to elbow, were crisscrossed with scars of varying length and depth, and dotted with cigarette burns that looked like haloes.

Shera (not her real name). had a tough childhood and began cutting herself when she was 15. She’d used razors, broken bottles, scissors and even tin can lids. When I asked her why she did it, she replied, “It made me feel better”.

Shera was a cutter. And I, like many people, had to learn what it means when a woman hurts herself — and later, how to help her stop.

Millions injure themselves

There are roughly 1.9 million cutters, or people who intentionally harm themselves much like my roommate Shera, in America. And one source says that 750 out of every 100,000 people in the United States practice some form of self-injury.

While these numbers don’t tell us much about why people choose to physically harm themselves, (we’ll get to that later) they do reveal there are a lot of people intentionally injure themselves. But despite what the recent glut of stories about women who cut themselves, cutting is not on an epidemic level among young women, stresses Laura Mason, Ph.D., director of the Psychology Clinic at University of California at Berkeley.

“Sex experimentation and eating disorders are much more common than cutting or self-mutilation,” she says. But, as some ChickClickers know first hand, cutting is often associated with self-destructive relationships, school failure, rejection from guys and can also be a response to the stress that young women athletes have to deal with — sometimes it’s a way to exert control over their bodies and their lives.

Relief from the pain

For those of us who have never cut or intentionally injured ourselves, we probably wonder why, if a young women is feeling depressed, stressed out or overwhelmed by her life, does she cause herself physical pain?

Many cutters report that when they harm themselves, they feel relief rather than physical pain.

“I cut because all the pain flows out with the blood and I feel relief,” says ChickClicker dayshaagirl.

She echoes what many others self-injurers frequently report feeling when they harm themselves — a release of tension, pain and confusion.

Another ChickClicker, bumblebee, says she “take[s] safety pins, knives, curling irons, anything I can get my hands on and hurt myself, almost daily,” and she wonders “Am I the only person in the world who does this?”

As the statistics show, bumblebee is far from alone. There are thousands of Websites with stories, poems, drawings and advice about where to get help for cutters, and there’s many helpful books and articles that self-injurers can turn to. (Keep reading for more resources.)

Who hurt themselves?

The people who most commonly engage in cutting and self-injury are girls and women between the ages of 13 and 30. This is a time when many of us are coming to grips with identity and body-image issues. And these years can get tough.

How does it start?

Mason notes that in some cases, girls start out with body ornamentation such as piercing and tattooing.

“Something starts to happen or takes over that leads to cutting, burning with cigarettes, or scratching with pins and thumbtacks,” says Mason.

Superficial self injury, which means harming your surface (skin, hair etc.), is the most common form of self-injury and manifests itself in cutting, burning, self-hitting and interfering with wound healing.

It stops the pain

The reasons people self-injure are complex and can often stem from trauma or psychological disorders. Many chronic self-injurers suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as the result of sexual or emotional abuse. Cutters have also been diagnosed with chemical disorders like manic depression or bipolar disorder; eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia; and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among others.

In other words, many of the women who hurt themselves have deeper scars than the ones they carve or burn into their body.

Cutters report that while they might be going through prolonged suffering because of these disorders, they mainly cut to feel relief, to release tension, to express internal pain in an external way, or to punish themselves for being “bad.”

Despite the stigma that cutting or self-injury has, cutters aren’t “bad” people, nor are they doing anything that they should be ashamed of.

Rather, they are expressing the same internal pain many other people manifest through crying, screaming or giving the wall a good kick. But, because there is stigma about self-injury, when a person decides that it’s time to stop cutting, they may fear ridicule or misunderstanding.

When it’s time to stop

Mason reports that the most successful treatment for self- injurers involves a combination of one-on-one therapy with an experienced adult and relational groups, support groups or peer association. So, even though stopping might be hard for a woman who cuts or injures herself, and she’ll likely have to talk to a therapist or two, she’ll also get to share her stories with young women that who’ve had similar experiences.

Many testimonies of self-injurers show that the help and sympathy of peers can work miracles in learning how to stop when the urge to hurt yourself comes on.

Mason also says that some therapeutic drugs (like Prozac) can help to ease the “rise in tension or feeling of deadness” that self-injurers experience. But medication like this should come with therapy and a support group – otherwise that pain can just hide beneath the medication.

Why stop?

So, if self-injurers feel that the act of hurting themselves can make their other pain go away, why do women ever stop?

Not only is there a danger of infection and permanent scaring with each wound, but many cutters find that they have to cut themselves deeper and more frequently as time goes on. In fact, many end up in the emergency room – after seriously injuring themselves — and have to face concerned and confused family and friends.

If you, a friend or a loved one cuts or otherwise injures it’s time to ask a question: Does she want to decide for herself that she should stop, or wait until someone else tries to make the decision for her.

It’s a decision

My roommate made the decision to stop cutting. And with the help of her family and friends, found a therapist and began resolving some of the issues she’d been carrying around since childhood. Self-injurers may feel like they’re alone in the world, but as my roommate found out in her support group, they aren’t alone at all.

And with the growing exposure that self-injury is getting in the media, hopefully women who experience it will be able to see that they can move beyond their “secret shame.”

How to help a friend

There’s no single right way to support or get help for a friend. But here are a few ways you can start to show your support — without hurting her:

  • Listen to her stories — you might be the only person she can talk to.
  • Acknowledge her pain — you can’t know how she feels but you can let her know you’re listening.
  • Do some more research about cutting and self-injury — find out what experts and other women say about the kind of self-injury she is practicing.
  • Be supportive — but don’t reinforce the behavior.
  • Avoid ultimatums — demanding that she never hurt herself again will likely result in disappointment and possibly a loss of trust.
  • Don’t force things.
  • Check out this site Secret Shame: You Are Not the Only One.
  • If you think your friend is endangering her life, talk to an adult or counselor immediately or click here for other suggestions.

More resources

Toll-free hotline

Self-Abuse Finally Ends (SAFE) offers 30-day inpatient programs. Call for more information: (800) DONT-CUT.

More information

  • Self Injury: You’re Not the Only One - Probably the most comprehensive and well-researched site on self-injury, this site includes diagnostic tests and questionnaires girls can fill out to understand why they self-injure, links for help resources, message boards and chat rooms.
  • - Links and true stories about self-injury.
  • Mental - Offers a manual of diagnosis definitions, diagnoses, suggested treatments and symptoms for common forms of chemical and behavioral mental issues.
  • “Down with Depression” - Tips and true stories about dealing with the blues.
  • A Bright Red Scream by Marlee Strong, Penguin USA, 1993.

True stories

Kaya Oakes lives and writes in Berkeley, California.


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