Self-mutilation is on the rise, experts say

Given time to heal, the cuts appear to be mere scratches.

But take a closer look, these cuts or “scratches” were no accident.

After months of therapy, 17-year-old “Jane,” can look at her scars with perspective. The events and emotional turmoil that compelled her to take a razor to her inner forearm and upper arms are still clear in her mind, but the desire to cut has begun to fade.

“I always felt stupid and childish after I had done it. It felt good for the moment but after the blood had dried up and I realized I’m going to have to hide this from my mom for a couple of weeks until the scabs go away, it’s more trouble than it was help,” Jane said. “I’m still not that good with dealing with emotions but I’m doing better.”

Sadly, local mental health professionals agree Jane’s story is not uncommon.

“Jane,” a Midland area resident whose name was changed at her request, is a recovering cutter. She agreed to speak to the Reporter-Telegram to tell others who are cutting or who have considered cutting, “They’re not alone, but it’s not worth it.” Jane is getting counseling from Kristi Edwards at Centers for Children and Families.

Cutting, or self-mutilation, has recently received nationwide attention as parents, teachers and counselors have taken greater notice of what has become all too prevalent among kids, generally between the ages of 10 and 16. The issue has drawn the media spotlight of late, but this detrimental coping mechanism and other forms of self-punishment dates back hundreds of years.

Coping mechanism

According to advocacy network Self-Abuse Finally Ends (S.A.F.E.), self-injurious behavior is defined as “deliberate, repetitive, impulsive, non-lethal harming of one’s body.” These behaviors include cutting, scratching, picking or interfering with wound healing, burning, punching self or objects, bruising or breaking bones and some forms of hair pulling.

Self-injurious behavior is said to be used as a coping mechanism.

“Self- injurers commonly report that they feel empty inside, over- or under- stimulated, unable to express their feelings, lonely, not understood by others and fearful of intimate relationships and adult responsibilities. Self injury is their way to cope with or relieve painful or hard-to-express feelings and is generally not a suicide attempt. But relief is temporary, and a self-destructive cycle often develops without proper treatment,” S.A.F.E cites.

Jane described the sensation of relief she felt shortly after cutting herself. “When I see the blood it’s like the pain is bubbling out and going away. It’s not there anymore. I don’t just sit there and stare at it. I normally go and get a Kleenex and wipe it off like I’m wiping the pain away.

“I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t want to hurt anymore. For that little while after I hurt myself, I could take a deep breath and be calm. A couple hours later I’d be back to being depressed, lying in my dark room listening to Slipknot, holding my razor and crying,” Jane said.

Unlike masochism, self-mutilators do not equate pain to pleasure.

“I’ve had clients who cut and they talk about the sense of release and stress reduction. Or they feel numb and this is the only way they can feel anything,” said Marc McQueen, clinical director of Centers for Children and Families. “It’s often not a painful experience to them.”

Edwards said a 17-year-old male patient knew he was recovering from his cutting habit when he was finally able to feel the pain from his self-inflicted injuries.

“He would cut himself to make a scar to remind himself of an event. His ‘scar arm,’ was his own personal journal of pain and rejection,” Edwards said.

Painful procedures

Cutters use the simplest of household items such as knives, razor blades, safety pins, loose staples, broken glass, bottle caps and other sharp objects to harm themselves. Jane said she would use disposable razors and the broken plastic knives and forks from the school cafeteria.

Self-mutilation also is manifested by burning the skin with cigarettes, hot metal, lighters and lit matches. Edwards said boys are more prone to intentionally burning themselves rather than cutting. Many are known to cause burns by repeatedly rubbing erasers on their skin, Edwards said.

Because most cutters tend to be private about their compulsion, they will go to great lengths to hide their scars. They will wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and sweatshirts, even in summer’s heat. Edwards said one of her cutting clients would go to school and hide razor blades inside the folded cuff of his sweatshirts.

Certain fashion trends such as terry cloth wristbands and stacks of rubber or “jelly” bracelets are used to cover cuts on arms and wrists. Jane said she wore wrist bands up and down her arms when she was cutting.

If cutters are discovered by parents, teachers or friends, they’ll often find new places to cut, such as upper arms, underarms, inner thighs and stomachs, where clothing obscures the wounds.

“I thought it was so obvious. I would a wear jacket over my pajamas — even in the summer,” Jane said. “My mom would tell me to take the jacket off, then I started going without it because she didn’t get it. I guess I wanted her to know. That’s why I wasn’t cutting deep enough to kill myself because I wanted someone to help me,” she said. “My mom actually saw my scars on my arms. Once my mom started seeing it on my forearms, I didn’t stop, but it went up under my shirt.”

Prevalence of cutting

“The practice of self-abuse of mutilation behavior is on the rise,” said JaLynn Hogan, a family counselor at Samaritan Counseling Center of West Texas. “It is estimated that one out of every 200 girls between 13 and 19 regularly practice self-abusive behaviors … Self mutilation is generally practiced by girls but effects at least 11,000 boys a year.”

Local parents may prefer to think this issue is not yet affecting area kids, but Hogan, Edwards and McQueen say they see cutting clients on a regular basis. Hogan has been involved in programs to help raise awareness about self-mutilation within the local school districts.

“It’s a huge problem here,” said Betty Newman, supervisor of Midland Independent School District counselors. “Everyone of our teachers is aware of the problem and we are always on the lookout.”

Hogan said many cutters, especially those with deeper psychological problems, often stumble upon cutting by themselves.

“There are the extreme cases of rageful cutters who generally have more severe mental disorders. They have extremes in emotion and will slash themselves quite violently and draw quite a lot of blood. When they snap out of it, they’re often shocked that they went that far,” Hogan said. “Other cutters are more controlled and precise in their cuts. They are cutting to take control over their emotions. They often cut in patterns such as lines, checks, and Xs.

The habit has been cropping up in more general populations of younger, junior high girls. Many of these cases are short-lived, copycat fads, Hogan said. Casual or experimental cutters may be more likely to be looking for attention than dealing with severe problems.

“It’s the new cool,” Edwards said. “There are a lot of the kids who saw cuts on someone else and wanted to know what it would feel like. That’s not always indicative of a real problem, but it shouldn’t be ignored.”


Though the program was meant to warn against the dangers of cutting, Jane said she was first exposed to the practice from a movie on the Lifetime cable network.

“I had watched a Lifetime move about a girl who cut herself. I felt like I understood a lot of what she was going through and it seemed to work for her so I gave it a try. I knew it was just a movie but I thought anything that would help.”

Cutting may be new to many parents and other adults, but most kids are already familiar with the practice.

McQueen said many of his cutting clients say they know at least one or two other kids who also cut themselves.

“It’s in their music and it’s in the movies. Parents will say, ‘I don’t want to talk to my child about this because I don’t want to put the idea in their head,’ but kids already know about it. Parents should let the kids know they’ve also heard about it, too, and open up a discussion,” Hogan said.

When she was cutting, Jane said she would frequently listen to bands such as Slipknot and Papa Roach, especially the Papa Roach songs such as “Scars,” and “Las Resort,” which begins with the lyrics, “Cut my life into pieces. This is my last resort.”

Pointing fingers at messages in music is nothing new. Hard rock, heavy metal, punk and “goth,” or gothic music, have drawn the ire of parents and politicians who claim to have found subliminal, or not-so-subtle suicidal suggestions.

In the blame-game, the ever-evolving “emo” or “emotional” musical genre has been criticized as promoting the cutting culture. The stereotype of the emo cutter has even become a joke of sorts. However, Internet blogs and message boards from emo fans fiercely protest the cutting image, saying not all emo kids are cutters.

Cutting is portrayed in movies such as “Thirteen,” and “The Secretary.” Several celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp and even Princess Diana have come forward and admitted their cutting habits.

There is no shortage of Internet sites devoted to cutting — some read like instructional manuals, but many others aim to offer advice or just a place for cutters to vent or console each other., an online social network of personal profiles and message boards, is controversial but popular among teens. A simple search for “cutting,” or “cutters,” under the “groups,” heading brings up 40 pages of cutting-related message boards. S.A.F.E. has a discussion group on myspace, but attention is easily diverted by other groups with gruesome titles such as “Strawberry Gashes,” “The Razor’s Kiss,” “Cut the skin to the bone and fall asleep all alone,” and “Take this razor and sign my wrist, so everyone will know who left me like this.”

Moving forward

The S.A.F.E. Web site states nearly 50 percent of self-mutilators report physical or sexual abuse during their childhood.

Jane said troubles within her family and relentless bullies at school drove her to cutting. Jane was 15 and staying with her father in California when she tried cutting for the first time.

“I was just really depressed. I tried cutting on the top of my hand and I tried with a knife and realized that didn’t work. It didn’t bleed as well on the top of my hand,” Jane said.

“Me and my brother didn’t get along well with my dad. I think he’s an alcoholic. He came home and drank screwdrivers — well vodka with a splash of orange juice — until he passed out on the couch. … He would tell me my brother was a loser. My dad just really depressed me. He made me really mad, really sad. And I couldn’t deal with him,” she said.

Later, Jane said her family problems escalated.

“I used to go (to her dad’s house in California) summers and at Christmas until my dad started getting pretty violent and I stopped going. I knew I didn’t deserve to get beat on by him, but I guess I decided it’s OK for me to hurt myself. I go there now when I choose to visit; I don’t have to go. He’s learned, now though. I think it was because he drinks too much.”

Jane’s reliance on the razor continued after she was removed from the situation with her father. She had trouble making and keeping friends at school and often felt rejected and alone. Tormenting bullies put Jane’s self-esteem at an all-time low, and she resorted to hanging out with “the group of misfits, the ones who didn’t fit in with anyone else.” She changed her look; she dyed her hair; her musical tastes took a darker turn. When she thought no one was listening and no one cared, Jane experimented with drugs and alcohol. But no substance seemed to compete with the emotional release of cutting. Some of her “misfit” friends had a fascination with the macabre and encouraged Jane to cut herself.

“I got made fun of — called fat. A boy in class told me, ‘Don’t look at me like I’m a Thanksgiving turkey. Go eat a sandwich.’ Teachers heard that and they didn’t do anything,” Jane said. “I had lost all my faith in authorities and people and I’m still pretty disappointed in people.

“My mom would tell me to ignore it, but I couldn’t and I would go in my room or the bathroom and cut myself. I’d turn on the water so my mom couldn’t hear me cry,” Jane said.

The bullying got so bad, Jane could no longer concentrate on school work. Finally, Jane transferred to another high school in the area.

“My connection to cutting was being bullied and not having anyone to connect with. The last couple of days at my old school, my friends ditched me. So I sat in the bathroom at lunch until the bell rang to go back to class. I didn’t have anyone to sit with. There wasn’t anyone left. I was alone. I had gone through everyone,” she said.

With a new school and a new set of friends, Jane said things improved over the last school year. The desire to cut rarely gets the best of her. Instead, she turns to her journals and writing poetry to vent her emotions.

“Cutting is like a drug, and it feels good for a while, but you just go back to being depressed. It’s not worth it. There are so many different things I could have done than cut myself. I love to write and now I think writing in my notebook has saved my life,” Jane said.

Jane’s mother “forced” her to begin therapy. She was resistant at first, but she said she feels the benefit of having someone to talk to.

“Moving really helped me change. I would still be cutting if I was still in that situation. My mom made me come (to therapy) but I think it’s changed the course of my future. It’s given me a safe place to talk about my feelings. I can tell Kristi things I could never tell my mom or my friends and I know she won’t tell anyone.”

For more information about self-mutilation, please visit, or call 1-800-DONTCUT, Centers for Children and Families at 570-1084 or Samaritan Counseling Center of West Texas at 563-4144.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Midland Reporter-Telegram, USA
June 12, 2006
Elise Rambaud

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)