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Tomorrow is the first of March, and for many, that can mean a lot of great things, including the fact that spring is not far away. However, it also means we need to start a dialogue that plagues millions of individuals yearly: Self-injury. March is #SelfInjuryAwarenessMonth in Canada, the United States, and Western Europe, and self-injury is something that I—like so many others—continue to know very little about.
A few years ago, I was told by a student that they needed to talk to me. At the time, I didn't think much leading into this conversation; I'm a high school teacher, so the days seem rare when someone doesn't need to talk to me about anything, ranging from homework to marks. At any rate, as this student and I are talking, she eventually reveals to me that she's been self-harming, which stopped me in my tracks. It was pretty much at that moment a career first for me, and I remember my mind raced as I tried to come up with something to say that wouldn't scare the student—who was already probably pretty scared—off. I told the student that while I was proud of her for discussing her #selfinjury, I had to inform someone else about it due to concerns about her safety. I remember after I told an administrator about this student, I felt a bit shaken for the rest of the day because I couldn't understand why anyone would self-harm.
According to Huffington Post Canada, there are two million cases of reported self-injury in the United States, and that number is comprised of mostly youth. It's horrifying to me that young people, in particular, would be in such despair that they would turn to self-injury as a way to cope with whatever emotional pain they are going through. Yet, there seems to be a large segment of the population that does exactly that.
I had to learn, though, that self-injury does not mean that someone is suicidal. The emotional distress connected with self-harm, if left untreated, could potentially lead to suicidal ideation, but self-injury itself is not an indicator of suicidal thoughts, which seems surprising. However, it is an indicator that the self-injuring person is probably coping with significant emotional trauma; HealthyPlace reports that of those who reported self-injury, half had also been sexually abused. It's also a behavior that crosses gender lines. One in five females and one in seven males, according to the HealthyPlace statistics, have reported engaging in self-injurious behavior.
Huffington Post reports that self-injury can include "burning, pulling hair out in clumps, breaking bones, scratching, bruising, and drinking something harmful."
What is also disturbing is that those who self-injure say that they have either learned the behavior from friends who have taught them how to do it or from pro self-injury websites. The fact that websites of this nature even exist and that there are those who claim that they are "inspirational" is deeply troubling and suggest a need for greater policing of internet sites, but that's another subject for another time.
Self-injury is also not an activity confined to one particular age group or social status. Retired Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire is probably Canada's most recognizable voice in the fight against self-injury and mental illness, as he admitted to cutting himself with his father's razor in an effort to cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—an injury he sustained as a result of his time in Rwanda in the midst of its horrific genocide in 1994. It's estimated that anywhere from 500,000 to a million people were killed in 100 days, and Dallaire was stationed in Rwanda at the time. Dallaire discusses his self-injurious behavior and trying to cope with PTSD in "Waiting for First Light, My Ongoing Battle With PTSD." According to IMDb, other celebrities who have dealt with self-injury include Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, and Sid Vicious.
What's clear is that in spite of clear statistics showing that self-injury is not going away anytime soon, more needs to be done to encourage people to talk about it. We can't freak out and be negative or threaten to ground the person or whatever the case might be when someone reveals in one way or the other that they are self-harming. There is no surer way to shut down communication than by pointing out to the person that what they're doing is wrong or by trying to make them feel bad about what they're doing. People who self-injure need help in acknowledging what is triggering their behavior, in acknowledging they need help, and in acknowledging that they have support.
Finally, trust goes a long way in helping the self-injuring person recover. While it will take some time to heal both physically and mentally, trusting that the person will work on trying to heal is key in their recovery. Self-injury is a serious sign that someone is using potentially dangerous coping mechanisms for a deeper pain, but that doesn't mean they are beyond help. There is, in fact, hope.