Self Harm, the Truth Hurts

“I am proposing that we are raising a generation of teens who feel lonely, disconnected and misunderstood.  I know that we are not doing this intentionally. I am simply concerned that in our fast-paced and electronically connected society, we are not sitting down with teens and taking the measure of their mood and emotional well-being.”

So states Dr. Barbara Greenberg, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist and the Adolescent Consultant at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, who is an expert on issues relating to parenting, teens, communication, love, family and lifestyle. Earlier this month, Greenberg’s article in The Huffington Post revealed that in a recent survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of 6 high school students reported they have thought about suicide and a more alarming 1 in 12 reported having attempted it. The question of teen violence, against themselves and against others, is baffling, scary and one that every parent unfortunately must consider.

“I am concerned that self-mutilation is becoming more pervasive and starting at younger ages,” states Greenberg.

The tween and teen years see many children becoming more independent and private, especially from their parents. However, some adolescents have a difficult time with emotional regulation and in expressing themselves. Instead of verbalizing their feelings, emotions are internalized. At its extreme, traditional coping strategies are substituted with self-harm behaviors such as cutting, hair pulling, scratching and purging. Once the cycle of self-harm starts, it can be very difficult to stop and the smallest incident can cause the behavior to be set off.

What Are The Causes?

“Triggers for these behaviors depend on the individual,” explains Dr. Keara Conway who is a Clinical Psychologist with Greenwich Education Group and The Spire School. Simply put,“the events that trigger self-harm are different for each adolescent.” Self-harm may serve as a “distraction” from what is being internalized to a student who has become “numb to their feelings and is looking to experience a physical manifestation of their pain,” a substitute for true emotion, reveals Dr. Conway.

Self-harm or self-injury is understood as a way of expressing and dealing with deep distress and emotional pain. As strange and counterintuitive as it may sound to those who are witnessing it happen, those who self-harm often state, “hurting yourself makes you feel better.” In fact, they may feel that they have no choice; injuring themselves is the only way they know how to cope with feelings like sadness, self-loathing, emptiness, guilt, and rage. “When parents discover this behavior, they are often shocked” and “feel helpless,” explains Dr. Conway. Understandably parents “want guidance around this issue.”

Myths vs. Facts

There are many misconceptions about self-harm according to helpguide.org:

Myth: People who cut and self-injure are trying to get attention.
Fact: Most people who self-harm generally do so in secret. They don’t seek to manipulate others or draw attention to themselves, but rather shame and fear can make it hard to ask for help.

Myth: People who self-injure are crazy and/or dangerous.
Fact: Many people who self-harm suffer from anxiety, depression, or a previous trauma—no different than millions of others around us, or even ourselves. Self-injury however is the way some have learned to cope. Putting a label on them as “crazy” or “dangerous” isn’t accurate or helpful.

Myth: People who self-injure want to die.
Fact: Self-injurers usually are not trying to kill themselves, but are trying to cope with their inner pain. In fact, self-injury is a way to go on living however, in the long-term, people who self-injure have a much higher risk of suicide, which makes seeking help critical.

Myth: If the wounds aren’t bad, it’s not that serious.
Fact: The level of injury has little to do with how they may be suffering. Don’t assume that if the wound is minor that there’s nothing to worry about.

Treatments

The first step in treatment is getting help. There are several types of psychotherapies that can help to identify and manage an individual’s issues and triggers. One effective treatment for helping adolescents who struggle with their emotions, stress and relationships is Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT. The treatment focuses on becoming mindful of ones feelings, developing coping skills and learning how to regulate emotions.  In addition to consistent psychotherapy, consultation with a psychiatrist may help the family determine whether medication should be considered to help treat the underlying psychological issues.

“In the wake of three recent student suicides in the Stamford/Greenwich and the exploration of the plagues of the privileged — astonishingly high rates of drug use, mood disorders, cheating, stealing and self-harm — we are reminded of our area children’s physical, social, and emotional vulnerabilities,” states Tammy Moscrip, Ph.D., and Executive Director of The Spire School. Moscrip explains, “a focus on prevention is key, as we consider the incredible contribution of open and honest family communication and strong problem-solving and coping skills.”

Building Healthy Relationships

Treatment options build on this prevention-focus through family therapy, skill-building groups, stress reduction, and cognitive restructuring. Healthy relationships are key for struggling students, who benefit greatly from meaningful and trustworthy exchanges with parents, siblings, peers and other influential figures.

On Thursday, November 21st, Dr. Greenberg will be giving a free presentation on “Adolescents and Self-Harm” at The Spire School, located at 44 Commerce Road in Stamford, CT.  We encourage parents to attend and to learn more about these critical issues.  As Dr. Greenberg points out “it seems paradoxical that more contact via social media and a feeling of self-isolation can co-exist” but it is the new reality of teen-age life.

Please join us for this important presentation. Attendance is free, but reservations are required by emailing kconway@greenwichedgroup.com.

For additional information on Dr. Greenberg, please click here to visit her website.