Dangerous Relief: Teens Increasingly Turn To Self-Abuse To Cope With Stress

Cutting, other self-abuses being addressed by Web communities.

It's no secret that, for years, the pressures in a young person's life — academic responsibility, parental stress, social anxieties — have led many to injure themselves. What's disconcerting is that self-abuse is on the rise.

Recent statistics, as well as the volume of Web sites dedicated to the subject, indicate that an alarming number of youths are continuing to turn to self-mutilation — such as cutting, burning or biting skin, or ripping out hair — as a dangerous way of coping with stress.

A recent survey conducted by Cornell and Princeton universities revealed that 17 percent of college-aged respondents at those schools had intentionally injured themselves at some time in their lives; three-quarters of these participants admitted to doing so more than once. Experts say the results of this study, which were published in the journal "Pediatrics" last week, are comparable with other such estimates of adolescent self-harm. Approximately 1 percent of the general U.S. population resorts to self-abuse as a coping mechanism.

The late Princess Diana was a cutter. Actress Christina Ricci has also admitted to self-abuse. Maggie Gyllenhaal portrayed a self-abuser in the 2002 film "Secretary," and Ellie Nash, a character on "Degrassi: The Next Generation" overcame cutting as a way of coping with her dysfunctional home life.

Self-abusers tend to be girls who come from a middle- or upper-class background and have average-to-high intelligence and low self-esteem, according to the National Mental Health Association. And though cutting can be a symptom of a mood disorder, self-abusers are often not suicidal.

"Cutting behavior, though destructive, serves a function," said Richard Kadison, chief of mental health services at Harvard University Health Services. "It's a coping mechanism, like drinking, for example. For some people, it numbs them out. For others, it allows them to feel. For others it allows them to take depression, anxiety and other symptoms and focus them into something physical and tangible that's easier to manage."

For many kids who cut themselves, the act serves as a form of control. In the midst of what feels like chaos, cutting allows some people to exercise power over one aspect of their lives, according to Luanne Southern, NMHA senior director of prevention and children's mental health services.

"I think that more kids are doing it, and we're recognizing it more than perhaps we did in the past," Southern said. "But I also think that there are some exacerbating factors. We all lead very busy lives. Parents are working; we have a lot on our plates. I think that we put a lot of stress and undue pressure on our young people."

This sentiment is echoed in the countless message boards dedicated to self-abuse. "I usually find myself doing it because I want all the thoughts in my head to stop," posted one member of a MySpace group for cutters. "They always put me down and made me upset, but during and after I cut, they all stop and go away and I can just relax for a bit."

"Given our work in the pop culture arena, it's pretty clear that most adolescents that we talk to already know about self-injury," said Janis Whitlock, lead author of the college survey and director of the Cornell University Research Program on Self-Injurious Behaviors. "It has started to appear with a fair amount of frequency in the media, in movies, in song lyrics and in TV shows."

Increased awareness is key. But finding a community that can comfort, inform and transform abusers is another matter. Many young people report feeling like they are burdening parents by talking about their problems when their folks are constantly busy with work and other stresses. Southern suggests that the perception that some teens have no support system may even contribute to the self-abuse cycle.

Fortunately, alternate support systems are cropping up in the digital world. "Students live on the Web now," Kadison said. "Web sites are ways of connecting to other people who can relate to and understand what they're going through."

Internet message boards and Web support groups allow self-abusers to share their stories and feelings in a safe and anonymous environment. A search of MySpace's "groups" page yields 94 results for self-injury; an Internet search produces hundred of self-abuse support sites.

But there are dangers lurking on Internet self-abuse sites, as well. A small percentage of self-injury-based sites actually reinforce negative behavior or encourage users to share techniques.

"[The sites] teach people how to do these behaviors better or more frequently," Kadison said of communities that are known as pro-self-injury (or pro-SI). "Or [self-mutilators] become more attached to the behavior because they feel like they're part of a community. People are drawn to communities and the Web is creating lots of these communities."

But as the experts point out, such counterproductive sites are a mere blip on the self-abuse community radar. The majority of sites will do exactly what Southern recommends: urge abusers to seek treatment and confide in trusted adults or therapists to help alleviate stress. And perhaps most importantly, they can remind self-injurers that they are not alone.

"I would really like to see people in our country rededicating themselves to taking care of our young people," Southern said. "We really need to think about the fact that these young people are calling for help and we need to respond."