Scarred for life

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 10, 2008

“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.

In fact, writing it out (instead of speaking) might be particularly useful, Morgan says. “The process of organizing thoughts into coherent expressions, which is more apt to happen with writing than speaking, seems to have a cathartic effect,” she says. It’s not a stretch to wonder if blogging even might be better than writing in a journal: If organizing thoughts is this helpful, then perhaps the extra thought that goes into explaining or describing something more thoroughly — for the benefit of a blog reader, say — might make the process of writing still more useful.

What remains to be seen, however, is how the interactive nature of the blogosphere will affect these two women and those who contribute to their sites. On one hand, writing for an audience increases that sense of comfort — and decreases the feeling of being alone. On the other hand, the reading public isn’t always as supportive as one might hope, and increased visibility can lead to a normalization of dangerous behavior. Putting emotionally raw thoughts out for the world to see is a vulnerable proposition, and one that can quickly get out of control.

In a November 2007 article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behaviors, wrote: “To many, the Internet may become a surrogate friend and/or family where users are able to seek out those who provide not only support but normalcy as well." She went on to describe a 2006 study that found online self-injury discussion groups helped 37 percent of the study's participants, "through support of their efforts to cease self-injury and/or through an enhancement of self-acceptance." Just 7 percent of the people studied, she wrote, "indicated that they believe the (online discussion) group led to an increase in self-injury."

That doesn't mean it'll be easy for Kate. “Bottom line is, she’s got to be damn careful, and hopefully reach out to other people who have been doing this for a few years,” says Philip Dawdy, a journalist who writes about mental illness (his own, and the topic in general) at “She’s gotta be ready for the intensity of it — people are going to rip her apart.”

Of course, the barbs of strangers will be nothing compared to what Kate has done to herself.

If you are thinking about harming yourself, contact a mental-health professional immediately. The organization S.A.F.E. Alternatives ( has an anonymous toll-free hotline: 800.DONT.CUT.

In 2005, one in five Maine high school students reported engaging in non-suicidal self-injury.

Deirdre Fulton can be reached

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