Below is an interview with psychologist Kate Dunn. It explains why some people cut themselves on purpose and how to get help. It is reprinted with permission from Youth Communication of New York (www.youthcomm.org). It appeared in the Jan.-Feb. 200 issue of their foster youth magazine Represent. This interview was conducted by Christine McKenna.
Q: What is self-abuse and why does it happen?
A: Self-abuse is anything that injures a person’s own body or mind. Some people find self-abuse releases feelings that otherwise they couldn’t stand.
Self-abuse is more common among people who have been abused before. … Teens who self-mutilate also often come from families where negative emotions aren’t expressed so they don’t know how to express pain or sadness. Cutting may be a way to release those negative, intense emotions when they get unbearable. They may find cutting grounding, as well. It brings them back into their bodies and a sense of self. It makes them feel more real. It turns emotional pain into physical pain. Sometimes when people cut they are drawing a line between what happened before and now.
Q: What can people who cut themselves on purpose do to help themselves?
A: Get help, and find different ways to soothe yourself. Exercise, cooking, washing dishes. Many self-abusers find meditation helpful because it grounds them. Most people find it difficult to harm their body if they feel attached to it. If you do cut again, you have to consider it a lapse, not a relapse. Just because you have an episode of self-abusing once, doesn’t mean that you have to keep doing it.
Q: As a therapist, how do you help someone who cuts herself?
A: The thing about self-mutilation is it does work in the short term, because it makes the person feel better, so it takes a long time for someone to stop self-abusing. But it’s absolutely necessary that self-mutilation does stop. It’s dangerous.
I believe that when you understand something, you can have mastery over it. So I’m interested in understanding the feelings and thoughts and past relationships that cause a person to self-abuse. Learning self-soothing techniques is also important to helping someone stop.
Q: How should friends react to an individual’s self-abuse?
A: A lot of times when someone cuts they’ll tell other people they’ve done it. People who hear about it may feel helpless, because the self-abuse already happened and it’s very frightening. So they may be mad or horrified or feel they’ve been manipulated.
I think it’s really important when someone says they’re self-abusing to express concern, and let that person know that because you care about them, you can’t let them continue doing this. People who self-abuse need help, and it’s sometimes important for them to be reminded that feelings pass, they don’t last forever. They need to learn how to manage horrible feelings by distracting themselves instead of abusing themselves.
Where to turn
If you are feeling depressed or have thoughts of hurting yourself, don’t feel you have to suffer alone. Talk to someone about it.
Call Teen Line at 1-800-TLC-TEEN (1-800-852-8336) to speak with a trained teen peer counselor from 6 to 10 p.m. www.teenlineonline.org
Suicide prevention hotline 1-877-7CRISIS (1-877-727-4747)
To be connected to the nearest suicide hotline call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)
Get phone counseling, information and referrals from California Youth Crisis Line
The Trevor Helpline for gay and lesbian youth