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Get help for those who engage in self-injury

By: By Angela Ponivas, M.S.W. Special to The News Messenger
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Lighthouse Counseling & Family Resource Center provides counseling services to address varying behaviors that affect people’s health and well-being. 

One concerning behavior is the use of self-injury as a response to emotional pain. 

I witnessed this for the first time many years ago as a social worker for Child Protective Services.  A teenage foster child on my caseload was rushed to the emergency room on several occasions after taking a razor and cutting slices into her thighs and arms.  The foster parents experienced a tremendous amount of fear and alarm each time they saw the child covered in blood. Fortunately, the injuries were superficial in nature, but scarring nevertheless, and unfortunately, this continuing behavior led to the child needing a higher level of care than the foster parents could provide.

There are various types of self-injury.  They include cutting the skin with objects, scratching the skin, picking wounds so they can’t heal, biting or burning oneself and more harmful instances that include hitting one’s head or breaking bones. 

Of the many types of self-injury, cutting is the most common. 

Approximately one out of every eight people engages in some form of self-injury, and currently, it’s more widespread than it has been in prior decades. 

Among those who have mental illnesses, it is more common, affecting approximately one out of every four individuals.

Young people of all ethnicities, ages and income levels intentionally harm themselves. Cutting is most common among adolescent, Caucasian females who come from intact, middle- to upper-class families. 

Self-injurious behavior oftentimes begins during middle school and young people are often introduced to it through peer groups and media outlets (e.g., music, television and the Internet).   

Each adolescent who cuts is different and not all start or continue for the same reason. In addition, some individuals who cut may not show any of the warning signs.  

Here are some risk factors and signs that have been associated with cutting among adolescents:

 

Risk factors

·            Knowledge that friends or acquaintances are cutting

·            Difficulty expressing feelings

·            Extreme emotional reactions to minor occurrences (anger or sorrow)

·            Stressful family events (divorce, death, conflict)

·            Loss of a friend, boyfriend/girlfriend or social status

·            Negative body image

·            Lack of coping skills

·             

Signs

·            Wearing long sleeves during warm weather

·            Wearing thick wristbands that are never removed

·            Unexplained marks on body

·            Secretive or elusive behavior

·            Spending lengthy periods of time alone

·            Items that could be used for cutting (knives, scissors, safety pins or razors) are missing

 

The reasons teens choose to cut themselves vary; some explanations include a way to distract from personal pain, feelings of control and peer pressure. The good news is that the majority who cut themselves do not intend to inflict serious injury or to cause death, although death can occur by accident and the matter should be taken seriously. 

If an injury is discovered that appears to pose potential medical risks, contact emergency medical services immediately. 

If an injury is discovered that doesn’t appear to pose immediate medical risks, try to remain calm and nonjudgmental. 

If a teen is cutting or engaging in any other form of self-injury, a mental-health professional should be consulted. Professionals will use interview techniques to identify reasons why it may be occurring and to provide interventions for effective treatment.

 

Angela Ponivas, M.S.W. is executive director of the Lighthouse Counseling & Family Resource Center on 427 A St., Suite 400, in Lincoln. The direct line is 408-6944. The fax line is 645-3311.