Scarred for life

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 10, 2008

Cutting is becoming more common, and “there’s a sector that’s glorifying the behavior,” says Wendy Lader, a psychologist and the clinical director of S.A.F.E. “There’s no question in my mind that it’s a growing phenomenon.”

Indeed, self-injurers are far from alone. According to the Maine Suicide and Self-Inflicted Injury Surveillance Report, issued in September 2006 by the Maine Youth Suicide Prevention Program, there were 7081 hospitalizations for self-inflicted injuries (in patients older than 10 years) between 1998 and 2004 in Maine. During that time period, hospitalizations increased by approximately 33 percent, from 7.9 to 10.5 per 10,000 discharges. More females self-harmed than males, and the age group with the highest prevalence was between 15 and 19 for both genders. While most of the hospitalizations (80 percent) were due to poisoning or gases (mostly medication overdoses), cutting was the next-highest cause, with 691 cases between 1998 and 2004.

Of course, these are only reported cases — those that were bad enough to warrant a trip to the hospital. Only two of Kate’s injuries were ever that bad; she cut (and burned) herself hundreds more times. Self-injury is believed to be one of the least-reported symptoms of mental illness. On the state’s anonymous high school Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2005, one in five Maine high school students reported engaging in non-suicidal self-injury. These numbers are in line with national trends, which show that about 17 percent of young adults self-injure, Lader says.

For this reason, the Internet might be especially effective in reaching self-harmers who are too embarrassed to talk to other people in person about their problems. Several online support groups already exist for this purpose, such as Self-Injury Support at sisupport.org, or S.A.F.E. Alternatives at SelfInjury.com, in addition to many less official forums, blogs, and boards.

Blogs: alternative therapy?
There’s evidence that blogging is not merely comforting, but healthy. For one thing, there’s the fact that “all goal-directed activity releases dopamine,” says Alice Flaherty, a professor in Harvard University’s neurology department. Blogging — like playing video games, or listening to beautiful music, she says — is a goal-oriented activity; dopamine is a brain chemical associated with adrenaline, and the experience of pleasure.

“Studies of writing and health indicate that writing your thoughts and feelings may contribute to improved emotional and physical well-being,” says Nancy Morgan, the lead author of a study published in the February issue of The Oncologist that found that cancer patients who wrote creatively before treatment fared better than those who didn’t. “They are still trying to figure out why, but most recently they feel that cognitive processing leads to resolution and closure and therefore reduces the impact of intrusive thoughts — those issues that keep you awake at night. These same benefits could be available to persons with mental health challenges.”

Not only that, but Flaherty believes that blogging may provide placebo-like treatment for mental-health issues. The same way we feel better after venting to a friend, we might perk up after complaining to strangers because we’re conditioned to associate complaining with some feeling of release. “We like to complain because it often comes with material aid — at least, it does when we complain to sympathetic ears,” she says. “We then grow to like complaining even to our diaries, because of this association.” Or to our blogs.

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