Sometimes Chloe uses a knife, sometimes a razor blade and sometimes even an ink pen. Then she goes to great lengths to cover up the cut and resulting scar on her body.
But she feels so much better, at least until the guilt sets in.
Chloe, not her real name, is one of thousands of teenagers who is hooked on “cutting,” a form of harming oneself by injuring the body. For some, it has taken the place of alcohol and drugs to relieve emotional pain or as a way to deal with the struggles of life.
What is alarming is that the destructive behavior has moved into the church, and many Christian teens are getting involved. Cutting has been popping up in movies, music and other areas of pop culture, and as a result, it is reaching near epidemic proportions. Since cutting is generally done in private, no one really knows how widespread it is, however experts say upward of 3 million Americans hurt themselves on a regular basis. The majority, but not all, are female teens.
“When I started in this field 24 years ago, cutting was associated with a personality disorder, it was almost always women and it most always was young adult women,” said Boden McElroy, a licensed professional counselor with a private practice in Tulsa. “In the last five-10 years, it is more associated with adolescents, still more girls than boys, but that count is narrowing.”
McElroy said traditional psychology has viewed it as sort of a primitive expression of intense emotion.
“The idea is you have a kid who is experiencing strong emotions-frustration, anger, loneliness, even sometimes elation,” he said. “They either don’t know how to express it or they can’t express it, but that’s when the self-harm behavior comes out.”
McElroy said when counseling cutters, he tries to get them to do a lot of talking and a lot of journaling.
“You want to get these kids to open up instead of getting frustrated and angry because their girlfriend left them or their parents are down on them because of grades or whatever,” he said. “When you combine intense emotion and an inability to speak about it with a family where certain things aren’t allowed to be discussed, then the cutting becomes one way the kid can deal with that and get around the family system.”
McElroy added that sometimes with parents, he has to tell them it’s OK for their child to have questions about God or to not like their little brother or to be a C-average student.
“When they begin to deal with that from a family system perspective, mom and dad are actually able to open up and talk to this kid about the problems, and we’ll see the cutting go away.”
He said there are several steps parents should take, and the first is to not freak out.
“Parents often see cutting as a suicide attempt, and there’s a big difference between suicide and cutting,” he said. “Most cutters have absolutely no intention of committing suicide, and they aren’t cutting themselves in a way that would accomplish that.”
Second, he said, it is helpful to talk with a counselor.
“Make sure there is openness in the family,” he emphasized. “Some families just don’t have that. Some subjects are taboo and not allowed to be discussed.”
And third, realize it has become a fad among young teens.
“We don’t like to think of self harm as faddish, but it is,” he said. “A kid is having a hard time, goes to his friend who tells him when he cuts himself, he feels better.”
McElroy said there are also some things churches can to to help cutters.
“Youth pastors are there to help parents become better parents,” he acknowledged. “Churches have an obligation to not just talk to the kids, but also to the parents.”
McElroy said he encourages every youth pastor to get to know school counselors and to have one or two family therapists they trust and can refer to.
“When you look at early teen years, these are kids who are struggling to figure out what to do with all this stuff that’s going on inside them,” he said. “A lot of it is experimentation, just trying to figure out how to deal with these strong feelings-whether its hormonal, spiritual or academic. A lot of them will try anything.”
McElroy said there is something else he wonders about, although he has done no research on it.
“I can’t help but wonder as tattoos and body piercing become more and more acceptable, once the body becomes merely a canvas, is cutting just kind of the next step?” he asked.
He revealed that some research seems to suggest cutting releases endorphins.
“I ask kids if it hurts while they are doing it,” McElroy said. “I’m way less worried about the kid who says yes, than the one who says no, it literally feels good. Their brains may be hardwired in such a way they are getting more than an endorphin rush in cutting themselves.”