- Mental Health
Self-Harm Is Always Serious
Self-Harm: What Is It?
According to the Mayo Clinic, self-harm or self-injury is:
"Nonsuicidal self-injury, often simply called self-injury, is the act of deliberately harming the surface of your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. It's typically not meant as a suicide attempt. Rather, this type of self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration."
I've been a high school teacher for just over 20 years, and it's only been recently that I've realized that there are kids coping with emotional pain in terrifying ways. When I was younger, it seemed as though the easiest way to numb pain was to reach for pills, marijuana or alcohol. It was the 1980s, and that seemed to be what a lot of my friends were doing to cope with any sort of crisis they may have been facing. For that matter, some of them were doing that just as a way of having some fun on a Friday or Saturday night.
I'm well aware that kids are going to get into some behaviors that we as adults will not necessarily approve of, but I've realized recently that there are an increasing number of kids who are reaching for razor blades or scissors to cut. Yes, self-harm is out there, and kids are using it as a way of numbing the emotional pain they feel. At a guess - because I do not have the answers - the appearance of blood beading up from a cut may seem like a release of the bad feelings that are churning inside that the person wants to see gone.
Over the last year, I've been lucky enough that at least two or three students have trusted me enough to either tell me they are cutting or that they are struggling. These are kids who insisted over and over that they were fine, and that they had everything under control. That's when the conversation takes a dangerous turn, simply because the students don't really have their behavior under control. They think that because they are not cutting "too much" or that they are making sure to clean up after things are safe.
As a teacher, I tend to point out to students who are struggling in this regard that they would not have said anything at all if they didn't on some level need or want help. This is a hard conversation to have with anyone who might be cutting, but when you're already dealing with a teenager who is emotionally fragile because of the pain they are feeling, it's an even harder conversation. As a mom, I feel inclined to want to embrace the kid and tell them over and over that things will be all right. I want to hug them so tight all their broken pieces are fused back together and they feel whole again. While kids want to feel safe and want to be heard, they also need to know that they will be helped, and an embrace meant to make them feel cared for may make them feel as though the hug is only a temporary measure, where if you were able to tell them precisely what's next, and how you're going to help, they may find that more comforting.
As someone who wants to help, it's important to know exactly where your limitations are. As a teacher, I'm not qualified to help solve psychological challenges. I have to feel confident that I don't have all the answers, but I know where to reach out for help for these kids. I have to know that while I may not know what to say, I know what sort of resources I can connect the kids too, like the school social worker or school counsellors if the school has them. The bottom line is, while I may not really know what to say when I learn of a kid who's cutting, I can use my knowledge of who to connect the kid to in order to give them the right resources.
Easy And Seductive
Almost Too Easy
I realize there are plenty of adults who cut as well; Romeo Dallaire, Canada's lieutenant general who was in charge of the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in the time leading up to the Rwandan genocide, admits to engaging in self-harm not because he intended suicide, but because there was a certain peace to it.
"The warmth of the blood on me was the most soothing, it was like all that pain was pouring out of me," he said, according to CTV News.
Whether the practice of self-harm starts as a way of coping with depression or anxiety or whether it's because you are trying to release pain from prior trauma, it doesn't matter. You are literally taking your life into your own hands by cutting.
Youth Beyond Blue recommends as one of the first steps in helping someone who may be cutting letting them know they are supported in their lives. Self-injury is a sign that someone is completely overwhelmed by what's going on in their lives, and self-injury might be one of the few ways they feel they have of finding relief.
Cutting has also become something of an addiction for people who self-harm; I've heard kids tell me that they just feel better, and while I don't know if that is a result of the feeling of pain as the skin is pierced or because there's a physical representation of the pain finally, I do know that they aren't worried about whether or not the equipment they're using to engage in cutting is sterile.
It's entirely too easy to fall victim to an infection as you bandage yourself, simply because you've used scissors that hadn't yet been cleaned from cutting open a bag of chicken, or a razor blade that perhaps has a hairline width of rust on it. There's an old saying - "any port in a storm" - that I find myself unconsciously referring to when it comes to addictive behaviors.
It certainly applies with self-harm. Those addicted to the practice aren't going to necessarily think, "I need to do it, but I can't find a pair of sterile scissors or a fresh blade." They're going to want anything that works to allow them to cut.
And that decision may be a bigger hazard than the blood that ultimately will flow.
There's something seductive, from what I've been told, about any addiction, and from what I understand, self-harm is no exception. Most businesses and residences have things which can allow self harm - scissors, letter openers, knives - and so many of us are still fighting to have mental health recognized as a legitimate workplace concern. While we can't slide into an environment where we're encased in bubble wrap 24/7, It is important to recognize that if things are not quite right for someone - whether because their boyfriend or girlfriend broke up with them or they are struggling with any one of a number of issues - and we can't just tuck all sharp or harmful things away just because someone we know has begun to self-harm.
When we know someone's troubled or struggling, it's not always easy to reach out and offer support, and those who are struggling with an addiction, such as one to self-harm, need a great deal of support. It's too easy for us to just tell the person to quit - we don't necessarily have the mental or physical strain that occurs as a result. We also don't understand the genesis of the issue, either - we may not know that the person's situation stems back when they were little.
It's almost too easy for addicts to continue their addictive behavior, and in the case of someone who is self-harming, the world is a veritable playground of things they can do to allow them to continue their destructive behaviors. It's also too easy for us to just ignore or walk away from that person because who wants to get involved nowadays anyhow?
What if you were that person who needed support?