Self injury is intentionally causing self-inflicted physical pain in order to cope with overwhelming feelings, traumatic events, or severe emotional pain. The person is not “crazy, " but rather just never learned appropriate ways to express intense feelings. Some of the most common ways to self-injure include cutting, burning, hitting, scratching, and pulling hair. A person who self-injures usually does so in private. She does not typically flaunt or brag about injuries. Although some men self-injure, the behavior is more prevalent amongst women. The reasons vary. Some who self-mutilate say it helps to release pain, while others say it offers distraction from traumatic memories. For some, self-injury gives a sense of control. Others are numb to emotion, and self-injury gives them a way to feel something.
The biggest misconception is that self-injury is an attempt to commit suicide. The person in question may feel so bad that he has had suicidal thoughts, but generally the two are unrelated. In most cases, the act of self-injury is an attempt to cope with those intense feelings, not die.
Here are the warning signs of self-injury:
Compulsive need to injure oneself by cutting, burning, hitting, scratching, or pulling hair
Re-injuring old wounds so they don’t heal
Scarring, usually on arms, wrists, legs, abdomen, head, or chest
Attempts to hide arms or other body parts where injury occurred
Hoarding of sharp objects like razors
Person experiences a high from doing it
Consuming thoughts of self-injury, or the behavior interrupts normal daily functioning
In most cases, there is no intention of killing oneself, only to cope with or release intense feelings of pain
Usually self-injures when alone
If you experience any of these symptoms, you know that the behavior can feel all-consuming. You also need to know that there are people who want to support you in finding healthier ways of coping.
If you have a friend or roommate who is a self-injurer, it can be frightening and disturbing to be around this behavior. As difficult as it may be, do not attempt to stop or control someone’s self-injury. You are not responsible for her behavior, and by interfering with her way of coping, you could do more harm than good. Trying to hide or take away self-injury tools, giving ultimatums, or “guilt tripping" your roommate into stopping only encourages more self-hatred and more self-injury. Instead, support your roommate by helping her express feelings and offering to listen without judgment.
Whether you are a self-injurer or know one, seeing a campus counselor can help you find ways to better deal with the behavior. You can learn more about the myths and facts of self injury from the American Self Harm Information Clearing House at http://www.selfinjury.org/indexnet.html . You can also call the SAFE Alternatives Program at 1-800-DON’T-CUT (1-800-366-8288).
Susan Fee is a licensed counselor and author of the college survival guide, “My Roommate Is Driving Me Crazy! Solve Conflicts, Set Boundaries, and Survive the College Roommate from Hell" (Adams Media). She offers more college survival tips on her site, http://www.myroommateisdrivingmecrazy.com