Self Injury is rather unique in the sense that it is becoming increasingly wide spread among adolescents and college students (so wide spread as to almost be considered commonplace). Yet it is a disorder that has only recently begun to be studied, and is still widely misunderstood, even in some professional circles.
It seems to me that I meet young people dealing with this issue either personally, or through a friend or loved one, at every performance we give. Students and adults always have questions for us about it. Some questions come up again and again...
This week I want to take a minute to elaborate on a point Oriana made, because it is a bit of
advice that can be difficult to understand. The advice: Do not make someone who self injures promise to stop. Do not take away their tools. It only makes them more creative.
At a recent performance at Whitney Young High School, a girl in the audience asked me about this very bit of advice. She found it hard to understand why taking away the tools could be a bad thing, and wanted me to explain. I want to give that same in depth explanation to you today.
In our high school show, What's Behind Our Eyes,
the cast tells the story of Chloe, a young girl who self injures. When her parents find out, their reaction (to punish her and try to force her
to stop) does not help. It is only when her uncle intervenes, and helps connect Chloe with professional help, that she learns to replace the cutting with healthy coping mechanisms like music and journaling.
There are three main reasons not to make someone who injures promise to stop or take away their tools.
- Self Injury is a coping mechanism. A negative one to be sure, but it is often the only coping mechanism they have. Trying to take it away from someone before they have gotten help for the underlying motivation, and learned new healthy ways to cope, can actually make the underlying cause (such as bi-polar disorder, depression, or severe anxiety) worse, and lead them to engage in even more harmful behaviours.
- It can be very hard for a person who self-injures to confide in someone, or reach out for help. There is often a lot of shame surrounding the behavior. When they do confide in you, the natural response is to try to force them to stop. We do not want to see our loved ones hurting themselves. But this reaction often only causes the person who is injuring to hide their behavior, and avoid confiding in others in the future. Both because they are usually not ready to give it up, and because if they think you are angry and upset, they might try to protect you from the knowledge in the future.
- As stated above, just because someone is ready to ask for help does not mean they are ready to stop cold turkey. Self injurers, remember, are usually trying to make themselves feel better, more in control, less anxious, by injuring. If you take away their tools, you may think you are keeping them from hurting themselves, but you probably are not. What you might inadvertently be doing is driving them to find new, frequently more dangerous ways, to injure.
The best way to offer help and support is to listen, and talk calmly with someone about the behavior. Then help them to connect with a professional who will work to treat the underlying causes and to replace unhealthy coping behaviors (like cutting, hair pulling, burning and the like) with healthy ones.