Self-mutilation trend on the rise
More and more teens turning to self-injury as a form of appeasement
MONTREAL, Sept. 14, 2012 /CNW Telbec/ – More and more teenagers are turning to self-mutilation to cope with their inner turmoil. Dr. Martin Gauthier, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at The Montreal Children’s Hospital, MUHC says the number of teenagers deliberately and repeatedly injuring their bodies by cutting, piercing or biting their flesh is growing at an alarming rate.
When the psychiatrist started his practice 25 years ago, he seldom encountered adolescents who purposely mutilated themselves. When he did, they were often psychotic, intellectually challenged or autistic.
Today, approximately half the teenage patients he treats are self-injurers. “In the adolescent clinical population, it is about one in two. In the general population, one in six is a conservative figure. It goes up to one in three in some surveys,” says Dr. Martin Gauthier, who will be giving a lecture on self-mutilation during this fall’s Mini Med School at the MCH.
Female self-injurers are more likely to seek professional help but studies indicate self-mutilation is practiced equally by adolescent boys and girls across all 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. Typical targets are the arms, legs and abdomen and they often hide their scars behind clothing.
“It is important to differentiate cutting one’s breasts and genitals from the other situations. It is more serious as it involves a more direct attack of the sexual body,” adds Dr. Gauthier.
Teenagers hurt themselves to feel better
Dr. Gauthier also points out that self-mutilation is rarely a symptom of severe mental illness or a method used to commit suicide. It typically stems from 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.
“Most teenagers harm themselves because they are trying to feel better and cannot access other ways to deal with how terrible they feel. Self-mutilation helps to get rid of the tension and to resume normal activities. When repeated, it appears to become more mechanical and quasi addictive,” he says.
Cutting has become trendy
Dr. Gauthier warns that 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.
“Self-mutilation is very contagious. It is obvious on a psychiatric ward as it spreads from one patient to others. The same phenomenon exists obviously in schools and in our society through the examples given by stars, actors, musicians, and other teens. It has also been observed in jails and reception centers.”
The compulsive urge to self-mutilate
Some specialists hypothesize the compulsive urge to self-mutilate may be reinforced by the release of opioid-like endorphins, which results in a natural high. Dr. Gauthier also questions the connection between self-mutilation, and adolescent emotional and sexual development.
“Adolescence is characterized by a new rapport with the body as it develops and experiences genital orgasms. Becoming the owner of one’s body and the emotions it generates is a formidable task. When the capacity to tolerate and process certain intense feelings fails, these teenagers can feel compelled to attack their own bodies instead of turning to a pleasurable sensual activity to soothe themselves. It becomes their way of regaining mastery over situations and a body they feel they have little control over.”
Teenagers rarely seek help for self-mutilation and it can be a difficult pattern to break. Dr. Gauthier says a comprehensive assessment is crucial, not necessarily by a child psychiatrist but by a competent mental health professional. That professional will be able to assess when a psychiatrist is needed.
“We rarely address the self-mutilation alone. It is one aspect of the adolescent’s difficulties and the treatment will want to keep a global view. Specific suggestions to replace self-mutilation by more integrative solutions are more possible once a therapeutic alliance is established and the adolescent wants to stop cutting. ”
Dr. Martin Gauthier concludes by saying, “Self-mutilation confronts us to a human reality, most likely associated to consciousness and to our emotional development. Humans can turn their violence towards themselves. It is a complex behaviour involving one’s relationship with oneself and with others. This movement against oneself is paradoxically aiming at an increased mastery of one’s reality.”