Recently I read an article in the Austin American Statesman. The front page headline was quite disturbing: “Austin schools tally 1,000 students who intentionally hurt themselves.”
Here’s a portion of the article: “When Lizzie was in seventh grade, she would use a mechanical pencil to cut her arms and ankles under her desk. Her teachers never noticed. She would do it to make herself feel numb when she was anxious or when her emotions overwhelmed her. It became an addiction that Lizzie, now a high school student, is still fighting.”
“Health officials say self-injury – cutting, hitting, burning, bruising or otherwise hurting oneself to relieve stress or anxiety – frequently stems from underlying emotional or psychiatric problems, such as bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. It is an often misunderstood problem that is more widespread than parents might think.”
The Austin school district last year began tracking when students tell counselors or teachers that they are cutting or hurting themselves, and it has tallied nearly 1,000 such reports so far. “When I got those numbers, I was alarmed,” said a crisis counseling coordinator at the district who started the program. “For many years, we’ve known it is high, but the last two or three years we started paying more attention to it.”
The article goes on to describe self-injury as something teenagers and preteens have seen their friends and classmates doing, and some try it, not realizing that it can become addictive or that it can be a precursor to suicide. The body reacts to the injuries by releasing serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. Self-injury can become addictive as the body builds tolerance.
In the Austin instance, school officials are working to prevent self-injury in schools, rewriting the crisis handbook to include a protocol for dealing with self-injury. They provide staff development with counselors and are creating a DVD aimed at middle school students to teach them what to do if they or their friends are hurting themselves.
One school official said: “Self-injury is one thing a lot of people aren’t aware of. What surprises me time and time again is how well the kids hide it. Our kids are good at masking – their grades look great and they’re still involved in clubs and look happy, but they’re doing this.”
Once adults do find out, though, they need to be sure to treat it like it is: an unhealthy coping mechanism. “There a lot of things people do that are unhealthy, and this is just one of them. It’s not like you’re crazy for cutting … you just learned a way to cope that’s not healthy.”
My thoughts are simple. In addition to providing appropriate professional assistance, parents, grandparents, pastors and teachers can help immensely by affirming in young people a sense of individual self-worth as children of God. His love, forgiveness and acceptance have great power!