It’s a silent, often hidden, problem. It is not regularly addressed by the media, nor is it brought up in school health classes and lectures. But for an estimated two to three million Americans the battle with self-injury is very real.
Last Wednesday, Community Advisor (CA) Lauren Fitzpatrick presented her second annual program on self-injury. “Cutting Meant to Cope” was held in the Spiritual Center and was cosponsored by Phi Sigma Sigma and Tri Sigma.
“Cutting Meant to Cope” was both an information session and an opportunity for attendees to share their questions and thoughts concerning self-injury. Fitzpatrick, junior secondary English education major, created this program based on her own experiences.
“No one ever tells you in elementary or high school what you’re supposed to do when someone is hurting themselves,” she said. “They touch on other things, but never self-inflicted pain. So I thought I could be the one to talk about it. I knew I wasn’t the only one going through this painful experience and having to deal with these kinds of reactions. Nobody talks about it because it’s not accepted. But once you start speaking, people listen.”
Guest speaker Christine Bevan, residential therapist at the Carrier Clinic and College alumna, cleared up some of the myths surrounding this taboo topic.
“Self-injury is deliberate, non-suicidal harm done to one’s body,” she said.
Self-injury can be manifested in a number of ways, including cutting, scratching, burning, bruising, head banging, biting, picking existing scabs and continually reopening old wounds. About 72 percent of self-injurers cut themselves as their primary means of release.
“Self-injury does not discriminate against race, age, sex, class, religion, orientation or socioeconomic status,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s not only here at TCNJ, but it’s on other college campuses, high schools, hometowns and cities. It’s everywhere.”
Although self-injury is known to affect people of varied cultural and economic backgrounds, the most visible and known group with this problem are college-aged females.
“As with most other disorders, we see it most often in females because women are more likely to admit when something is bothering them,” Bevan said.
Although self-injurers may exhibit warning signs or clues about their behavior, they will usually not be as obvious as visible cuts.
“Folks who hurt themselves experience a degree of shame and embarrassment and will go to great lengths to hide it,” Bevan said. “They are skilled at it.”
Those who have experienced self-injury most often describe it as a feeling of overwhelming tension followed by intense relief.
“Self-injury is actually an unhealthy coping skill, because these people are unsure of what else they can do about their feelings,” Bevan said.
There are many reasons that people turn to self-injury. They may find it easier to deal with physical than emotional pain, feel numb inside and decide that creating external pain is a way to combat their internal emptiness or even think that bleeding represents negativity and pain leaving their bodies.
Whatever the reason, it is important for these people to realize that there are other, safer coping mechanisms they can turn to in order to combat this harmful addiction.
Bevan stressed the importance of seeking professional counseling. She also noted that writing in a journal, drawing on yourself with red marker, hitting a pillow or punching bag or sticking your finger in a tub of ice cream (to mimic the sharp sensation of cutting) have been helpful to past sufferers.
Many self-injurers are afraid to speak about their problem. When they do reach out for help they are often greeted with shock, disgust or fear. Another common misperception is that self-injurers are solely out for attention.
“When someone has this logic I always say, ‘they must need the attention pretty badly if they’ve done this to themselves,'” Bevan said.
“I remember my freshman year here at TCNJ when my floor found out about my self-injury,” Fitzpatrick said. “I started opening up, wearing short sleeved shirts and talking about it a little. Half the people on the floor didn’t want to know me anymore (or just didn’t know how to approach me), which made me feel unwanted, and the other half felt the need to stop by every few minutes and ask me questions to make sure I was feeling okay or hug me, which was kind of suffocating. I kept thinking to myself, ‘They’re going about this all wrong.’ No one should feel that out of place.”
Bevan and Fitzpatrick stressed the importance of responding to a friend who needs help.
“Tell your friends, ‘I’m here for you. I’m not going to run away,'” Bevan said.
“Many students who come to me feel guilty, because they can’t fix their friends’ problems or make them better,” Ann DeGennaro, director of the Center for Campus Wellness, said. “But you can be a great support system.”
Fitzpatrick also offered advice for those who are struggling with self-injury.
“Recovery is a long process that is going to be difficult,” she said. “They are finally going to address all of the issues that have been pent up inside for years. It may even get worse before it gets better. I promise, though, that it will get better. I promise it’s all worth it. I can’t promise a ‘cure,’ or that all of their problems will be fixed, but I know it will get better.”
After five years of self-injury and three years in therapy, Fitzpatrick has begun to realize that this addictive practice will always be a part of her life in some form.
“My urges may never go away,” she said. “I live with them every day, but they become less and less frequent as time goes on. All I can do is take it day by day.”
For more information on Psychological Counseling Services, students can visit the office located at 107 Eickhoff Hall. They can also call extension 2247 or visit the Web site at tcnj.edu/wellness/~psych/index.html.