Over the past two decades, an ever-increasing number of teenagers are turning to self-mutilation as a way to cope with intense emotions and pressures they feel about their lives.
People who engage in self-mutilation cut, pierce or bite their flesh, with cutting being the most common type of self-injury.
In the general adolescent population, one in six is a conservative estimate of the number of teenagers who self-injure but the reality may actually be higher than that. Girls who self-injure are more likely to seek professional help but studies have shown that teenage boys practice self-injury in equal number to girls. In addition, the statistics are consistent across different racial and socioeconomic groups.
The most common form of self-injury is cutting the skin with a razor blade, knife, scissors or other sharp tool. Less frequently, teenagers also pinch, burn, hit, prick and bite themselves. Typically, they injure their arms, legs and abdomen and they often hide their scars behind clothing.
Self-mutilation is rarely a symptom of severe mental illness or a way to commit suicide. Teenagers who self-injure are often experiencing inner turmoil caused by painful or unresolved issues such as intense adolescent angst and the emotional aftershocks of bullying or sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Self-mutilation helps to get rid of the tension. It’s a way to try to feel better since they cannot find other ways to deal with how terrible they feel. When self-mutilation is repeated, it can become mechanical and somewhat addictive.
An increasing number of teenagers are experimenting with self-mutilation to mimic celebrities and their peers. Self-injury forums on the Internet and cutting clubs at school have become popular.
When to seek treatment
Teenagers rarely seek help for self-mutilation and it can be a difficult pattern to break, but parents who suspect their teen is engaging in it repeatedly will want to seek out treatment. In such cases, a comprehensive assessment by a child psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional is key. The professional will also be able to assess when a psychiatrist is needed.
Professionals rarely treat self-mutilation in isolation but rather view it as one aspect of the teenager’s difficulties. By working with the teenager, they can help them reach the point where they stop injuring themselves, and help them find solutions to replace self-mutilation.