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Why self-injury is on the rise with teens

Posted by mandyf on July 7, 2012

Self-injury, also known as self-harm, is the deliberate act of hurting oneself without the intent of suicide. There are many forms of self injury which range from things like cutting or burning to the more extreme side like self-embedding objects under the skin after cutting. Whatever form of self-injury a person participates in, there are three things that are known for sure: It is a sign of a bigger problem, it is most common among teens, and it is on the rise.

There are numerous theories as to why self-injury (SI) is on the rise with teens, but rather than wander into the fringe, it is often best to stick with the hypotheses of professionals in the field and words of the people that actually take part in this behavior. One of the most common words that comes up is stress. Teens these days feel enormous pressure in ways that previous generations often didn’t. That isn’t to say that SI hasn’t been around longer than any of us on Earth right now, or that no teen prior to now hasn’t dealt with enormous pressure, but that the pressure they feel today is different.

Many cite the pressure to perform in school and get into a good secondary educational facility as a factor. Now more than ever teens have it drummed into their head they simply have to continue onward in their educational pursuits in order to have any chance of success. At times some cite their home life, parents divorcing and the feeling of pressure to choose sides drives some over the edge. There is war or the threat of escalated war, and almost anything you can imagine wrong in the world that could be a factor in teens participating in SI behavior. With the rise of mass media, teens today have access to and are more aware of things than many teens were in previous generations. Add all that together, and for many it is nothing but stress.

Here are some things both psychiatric professionals and teen self-injurers have described as reasons for this behavior:

1) An escape from emptiness, depression, or feelings of unreality.

2) To ease tension/find a release

3) To escape numbness- they feel nothing, so they injure themselves in order to feel something, even if it is pain.

4) To prevent suicidal ideation’s

5) A means of expressing pain

6) To obtain or maintain balance in their influence over others

7) To be in control, even if only of the manner in which they feel pain.

8) As a means of communicating inner turmoil, pain, or a cry for help they feel they cannot verbalize

9) Expressing or repressing sexuality

10) A means of validating emotional pain- If the wounds are real, then to so is they pain they feel which cannot otherwise be seen.

11) A continuance of abuse received at the hands of others as a child.

12) A form of self punishment for “bad” behavior.

13) To divert attention from other issues.

14) To cope with or express feelings of alienation.

15) To obtain a biochemical equilibrium.

With all the reasons outlined above, which is a far from complete list, it is easy to see why many teens are feeling pressure. A common thread through this again is pressure as well as a feelings of being alone and needing to exert control. Many teen self-injurers express that they don’t feel in control of their lives and that through SI they can dictate at least one thing that concerns them that no other person can. It is undeniable we live in a rather chaotic world with more people on the planet than ever, hence the possibility that there are going to be more teens involved in SI.

Something else which must be noted in the spread of SI behavior among teens is the media. With SI now a topic being openly discussed on the news and talk shows, this “coping” mechanism has reached many people which otherwise hadn’t heard of it. Likewise, with the rise of the internet, chat-rooms and support groups of all nature, some well regulated and helpful, some just a collection of garbage are everywhere. A teen, or anyone for that fact, often doesn’t know for sure which is which until they visit it. In some cases a teen may visit a chat-room tabbed as supportive for a problem like depression per se, only to find one or more peers there which advocate self-injury as something that works for them. The next thing you know, that teen visitor is considering or trying SI, perhaps they even become an advocate of it and spread it further. In large part, that has become a way the phenomena has spread among teens in crisis that was never before existent.

There are literally so many things in the world today which potentially contribute to a teen feeling as if the pressure life and those around them exerts is unmanageable, volumes of books can and have explored them. Each teen is an individual, therefor their reasons are as well. When those reason with widespread access to news and others that have or do self-injure are put together you have the makings of a true epidemic of sorts in the making. While estimates of current teen self-injury range from 10%-25% nobody is sure. Most cases go unreported or noticed unless the teen reports for treatment or it is known to another person which reports it. If you or someone you know is involved in SI behavior, please seek help.

Self Injury Helpline: 1-800-DONTCUT


The Scarred Soul by Tracy Alderman; Ph.D



2 Responses to “Why self-injury is on the rise with teens”

  1. Amanda, this is a very sad, but serious and important topic. I didn’t realize SI is becoming commonplace although I have seen stories in the news and on magazine-style programs. I am wondering if eating disorders are related, as well?

    Thank you for writing this post and for sharing this information.

  2. mandyf said

    thank you for stopping by Terri! In my experience, eating disorders can be a factor. It really seems to boil down to anything a person perceives as a stressor they feel unable to cope with effectively any other way. It really is so very sad and often unnecessary given many do have access to professional care through parents, school etc.

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