During the teen years we develop coping mechanisms to handle stressful events and emotions. However cutting and other types of self-harm are increasingly being seen as acceptable coping methods for adolescent girls and boys. This may mean cutting the arms, legs or stomach, burning the skin, scratching or hitting oneself, or even intentionally breaking bones.
While these behaviors are alarming and cause for concern, they are generally meant to make the person feel better not to cause death. The term used to describe this type of behavior is Non-Suicidal Self-Injury or NSSI. The most common type of NSSI is cutting to inflict injury, and people who do this are sometimes called “cutters.” NSSI is exhibited by 12-14% of adolescents and can continue into adulthood if left untreated.
People who self-harm usually feel a sense of relief and calm after harming themselves, possibly due to the endorphins released by the body in response to pain. Trauma or intense stress might also leave a person feeling numb or empty and the pain of self-injury can feel like welcome reminder that they still can feel anything. These feelings often become habit-forming, leading to a compulsion to self-harm that can be difficult to resist.
It is important to find more effective and less dangerous coping strategies. Self-harm can leave permanent scarring, can bring about feelings of guilt or shame, can lead to serious infections and may cause unintended death. Counselors who work with adolescents and young adults have targeted methods to help their patients develop new, positive coping skills. Whether you or someone you care about is turning to cutting – or other forms of acting out and self-harm – a non-judgmental, caring approach is best. Dealing with underlying emotional issues or stress and learning new ways, through therapy or counseling, to handle life’s troubles – especially the most serious troubles – abuse, traumatic experiences, or mental health issues, is critical.