Scarred for life

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 10, 2008

As on Kate’s blog, the anonymity allows posters to straddle the line between pouring their thoughts out to a (non-responsive) journal, and broadcasting personal secrets to family, friends, and co-workers who might not know about their struggles. “I think there is something very cathartic about sharing our stories,” Beilke writes in an e-mail to the Phoenix. “This Web site has the potential to be a great benefit, for both the individuals that share their stories and those that read their words. There is a certain level of comfort knowing you are not alone.”

Beilke and Kate want their Web sites to serve as anonymous support groups, but they have to be careful. Unmoderated group-think can be dangerous in some mental-health scenarios — as with pro-anorexia forums (where commenters encourage each other to engage in destructive, unhealthy behavior), there are some message boards, blogs, and forums that not only condone self-harming behaviors, but in some cases provide how-tos.

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.

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