The signs might not be always be visible, Diane Drake said, but they still could be there.
Non-suicide self-injury is on the rise among teens and young adults, Drake, director of the Elizabeth Layton Center for Hope and Guidance, said. Though often the pain and wounds inflicted from self-injury can’t be seen with the naked eye, Drake said, warning signs can be spotted.
“Parents should look for blood on the clothing,” she said. “Kids who always wear long sleeves or pants when it’s hot outside to cover the scarring. Maybe the absence or quick use of first-aid supplies.”
Non-suicide self-injury can be anything from self-inflicted cuts or burns, to more serious forms of self-injury, Drake said.
“Punching objects or one’s self to the point of bruising or bleeding is a form,” Drake said. “Some kids carve on their skin. Some kids compulsively pull their hair out. Some kids do excessive tattooing and body piercing, and then overdosing. But the attempt is not to commit suicide. They’re deliberately overdoing, but without the attempt to kill themselves.”
The statistic of children and teens choosing this method of coping with problems is alarming, Drake said. It’s estimated that 10 percent to 20 percent of middle school and high school students participate in such acts of self-injury, she said.
“The purpose of this behavior is not to reach death. It’s not a suicide attempt,” Drake said. “It’s a behavior in which there’s most likely some type of mental illness. It’s self-coping, but it’s not a safe coping mechanism.”
Underlying causes like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder might be too difficult to deal with for someone at such a young age, Drake said, so self-injury is a sort of release.
“Some kids really have been hurt so much internally that they don’t feel pain,” she said. “They have such walls around themselves that to cut provides a sense of relief. There’s a chemical response that occurs in someone then later feels better. It makes them have a chance to feel.”
That feeling of release typically is short-lived, she said, and like a high one might get from a drug, a person who self-inflicts can easily become addicted to the sense of relief that comes when pain is self-inflicted.
“It’s a way to feel pain or relief and a way to control their body,” Drake said. “The longer it goes on, it has more of an addictive quality. They get used to that sensation they have when they’re dealing with [painful feelings or emotions]. That’s why it can be addictive through time.”
The sooner the behavior can be identified, the better, Drake said.
“It’s very important not to be judgmental,” she said. “Acknowledge you see something has happened and you’re concerned. It’s not easy to deal with by any means, but being non-judgmental and accepting and not punishing the kids for doing it is better than being shocked.”
Knowing how to help is not easy for a parent or loved one, Drake said. Seeing a family medical doctor first might help ease into the process of seeking help, she said. Another option would be identifying a person the child or loved one trusts.
“It’s usually non-threatening to see a doctor and they discuss things openly, the doctor would recommend therapy, but in a non-judgmental way,” Drake said. “Most parents don’t know it’s going on or you don’t expect it to be going on.”
One of the ways the Elizabeth Layton Center is working to provide help to youths is by offering a youth mental health first-aid course, Drake said.
“One of the components for youth mental health first-aid is talking about what’s normal adolescent development and struggles, and where intervention is needed,” she said. “About 50 percent of those with mental illness that occurs, has an onset by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24.”
The program is geared toward teachers, counselors or anyone that has contact with youths, she said. New technology advancements mean more ways for kids to face peer-pressure, she said, which might be a large factor in what causes non-suicidal self-injury.
“If you’ve seen recently, a young girl committed suicide because of bullying on the Internet, and unfortunately new technology brings new problems,” she said. “Cyber bullying is awful, and it’s worse for kids who are questioning their sexuality.”
Talking to children and teens, along with spending quality time with them, can not only help prevent such behaviors, but also aid in identifying them, Drake said. With families busier than ever, she said, it’s important not to forget how important family time can be.
“There are no easy answers here because it’s not a science,” Drake said. “The first step is recognition that it occurs, not to be panicked, not to over-react or shame the young person for what they’ve gone through. They’re not doing it for fun. They’re not doing it to punish anyone else. They’re doing it because they have an underlying need.”