Self-Injury No Longer Rare Among Teens
Cutting and Other Dangerous Acts Becoming New Cries for Help
Nov. 21, 2002 -- For desperate teenagers overwhelmed with emotions that they cannot express, deliberate self-injury is becoming an increasingly popular and dangerous form of self-expression.
A British study of nearly 6,000 students shows that over their lifetime, 13% of 15- and 16-year-olds have carried out an act of deliberate self-harm. Within the past year, an act of deliberate self-harm occurred in about 400 of the students. Only 50 students went to the hospital, which suggests that the problem may be even more widespread. American experts say those numbers aren't surprising, but until now there has been relatively little research on the issue.
The study, which appears in the Nov. 23 issue of the British Medical Journal, was based on a survey conducted in England from fall 2000 to spring 2001.
Wendy Lader, PhD, co-author of the book Bodily Harm, says an estimated 1% of the U.S. population as a whole resorts to physical self-injury to cope with extreme emotional distress, but that rate is much higher among adolescents and females.
Lader says the phenomenon of self-harm has been around forever, but not at the level it is now. She says that not only are people talking about it more but it's also becoming more common as teens search for a new way to rebel and express themselves.
"It's harder for kids to get noticed as individuals, and they don't have the words for it," says Lader, who is also clinical director of the SAFE (Self-Abuse Finally Ends) Alternatives program at Linden Oaks at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill. "So they show it -- even if it's just to themselves because it makes it real for them. It's almost like their body becomes a bulletin board on which to notch their pain."
For some, hurting themselves is a form of suicidal behavior. In fact, nearly half of the students surveyed who engaged in the behavior said they had wanted to die. But for others, Lader says self-injury is a survival method.
"It's a coping strategy to deal with intolerable pain, but it works for them so it's a way of surviving," says Lader. But she says there is always the risk that once the method stops working for them, they could commit suicide -- either accidentally or purposefully.
Researchers say girls seem to be especially prone to self-injurious behavior, and the study found acts of self-harm were four times more common among girls than boys.
Lader says that when girls have a strong emotional response, they tend to act inward rather than outward because it's not "feminine" to be that angry.
"Girls will act on themselves and tend to say that they would rather hurt themselves than anyone else -- not realizing that no one needs to get hurt," says Lader. Coupled with the fact that girls tend to be very body conscious and more dissatisfied with their bodies, she says it's not a stretch for some girls to take their anger out on their body.