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Helping Teens Who Self-Harm

Mona is a veteran writer, educator, and coach. She is presently affiliated with Enrich Magazine and Pressenza


What reward does a person get from self-harming?

One can know a lot about different mental disorders, and even see the logic behind their illogical behavior. Cutting, however, is another story. You know that self-harm by cutting happens, but what psychological reward does one get by inflicting so much pain on oneself?

I looked for studies in the Philippines about self-harm but only came across one essay written by a former self-harmer. There were no studies focused exclusively on cutting in the Philippines, however, cutting is mentioned in a study about suicide in the Philippines, where it was ranked as the 9th cause of death by suicide.

I also heard, many years ago, about a suicide that was committed in a private high school, committed by someone who was a cutter. A psychiatrist was called upon to address students about self-harm and suicide.

Self harm and suicide


The payoff from cutting

What is the payoff from cutting? The study, Does rejection hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion by Naomi Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams, (featured in the journal, Science), noted that emotional pain is processed in the brain’s right ventral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). These same parts of the brain are activated when physical pain is being processed.

According to Psychiatrist Gayani DeSilva, M.D., cutting releases endorphins, which are our body’s feel-good hormones. Others talk about a feeling of respite and ecstasy. However, Psychologist Stephen Lewis, University of Guelph, Ontario, says the temporary relief is deceptive, and escape through cutting may eventually lead to suicide, the final escape.

However, not everyone’s cutting experience is the same. In some cases, the pain at its peak enables the person to forget about their emotional pain and focus on the physical pain instead.

Others say they experience a sense of personal control. They can control how deep or how shallow the cut will be, how many times they will cut, and where they will cut themselves.

Still others had traumatic experiences as children of childhood abuse. This makes them feel uncomfortable with their bodies. Because they always feel worthless and disgusting, they cut in order to punish themselves. One cutter said that the pain enabled them to wake up and face another day. It helped them to stay sane, and to fight for their life.

One must, and can get out of the loop


False freedom

Although cutters felt the above-mentioned benefits, they all agreed that the good feeling was only temporary, and the painful thoughts and emotions that made them cut in the first place would simply come back again. This led to an addiction to cutting, as some cutters tended to equate cutting with the emotional high that followed, disregarding the pain of the cut and the shame that followed the temporary respite.

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The secret scars

There is a lifetime consequence to cutting, namely, the scars that are left behind. Sometimes the scars are bigger than the original cut. To hide them, the person wears long sleeves and long pants, even on the hottest summer day.

For a frequent self-harmer, the scars are a great burden. One cutter described the texture of their skin as “resembling leather”. Another compared their body to something from a horror movie.

Genetic correlations of anorexia with psychiatric and metabolic traits.


Self harm and anorexia nervosa

Most self-harmers start in the age range of 9 - 14, with a peak of 23% who cut from ages 12-14. Cutting is the most common form of self-harm, but other ways include using a lighter for burning, scratching themselves until they bleed, jabbing their skin with pins and needles, pulling their hair off, hitting themselves, or banging their heads against the wall, to name a few. Generally, they stop self-harm after four years, but some continue the habit into adulthood.

A 2006 study in Pediatrics noted that one out of five college students will deliberately cut themselves at least once. Six percent will self-harm repeatedly. They cut without intention to commit suicide, but the longer a person self-harms, the greater the possibility is that they will one day successfully kill themselves.

Cutting has been compared to anorexia nervosa. In fact, many people who are anorexic also cut themselves. Other mental disorders associated with cutting include depression, borderline personality disorder, autism spectrum disorders, and associated anxiety disorders. The latter group is most at the peril of eventually committing suicide.

Herodotus wrote of King Cleomenes' self-harm and suicide

Herodotus wrote of King Cleomenes' self harm and suicide

Herodotus wrote of King Cleomenes' self harm and suicide

Historical Suicide Through Self Mutilation

Self-harm goes as far back as the 400s BC, when the historian Herodotus described the self-mutilation and suicide of Sparta’s King Cleomenes, a genius, according to Herodotus. When the king was imprisoned, he convinced a serf to give him a knife. Herodotus wrote, “Cleomenes began to mutilate himself from the calves of his legs upwards. He slit up his flesh lengthwise, and, beginning with his calves, he went on to his thighs, and then from his thighs to his hips and flanks, until finally he reached his stomach and found his death in slashing his stomach into ribbons”.

It can be dealt with


How to Prevent Self-Harm

The 2015 study, Predictors of self-injury cessation and subsequent psychological growth: results of a probability sample survey of students in eight universities and colleges by Janis Whitlock, Kemar Prussien, and Celeste Pietrusza, featured in the publication “Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health”, cited three major reasons why self-harmers stopped cutting, namely:

  1. Some 40% learned how to handle their painful feelings, and were reassured by knowing that they would feel better soon.
  2. About 24% experienced a positive, loving relationship with their friends and/or family, who made them feel that they were worthy of care.
  3. Some 27% simply outgrew self-harm.

How to help self-harmers

Below are a number of things you can do to help someone who self harms:

  1. Don’t immediately ask them to stop cutting. Remember that cutting provides relief for the person. Instead, try to introduce them to another coping mechanism that’s healthier, such as listening to one’s favorite music, getting a dog, journaling, crying, jogging, or working out at a gym.
  2. Express unconditional love. Everyone desires love that is unchanged despite what we did, are doing and will do. If someone is always there for the self-harmer to talk to, and who will listen to them, and be compassionate, the self-harmer will feel how much you care and will feel worthy of love.
  3. See things from the point of view of the self-harmer. By putting yourself in their place, you will be able to understand them and talk to them in a way that will reach them more clearly. You will gain the person’s trust and they will confide in you more and trust the advice you give them.
  4. Don’t be domineering or aggressive. This will only intimidate the person and make them feel more alienated and contentious. As a result, they will shut down and withdraw from you.
  5. Unconditional self-love matters. Oftentimes people who self-harm are sensitive, kind, and incapable of being deliberately mean. The problem is, they need to learn to love and accept themselves unconditionally. They can learn to rediscover who they are by writing their life story truthfully, and without self-judgment. They should also identify toxic people in their lives and remove these relationships.
  6. Get them to volunteer with you in a local charity. Volunteering will help both of you to see that there are others you can help who are less fortunate. You will also learn to count your blessings.
  7. Join a support group. It helps to know that you aren’t alone in this world. By hearing the stories of others, a self-harmer can gain confidence and feel empowered without needing to cut themselves.
  8. Suggest professional help. Oftentimes there are deeper, underlying issues that compel a person to self-harm, such as childhood abuse and/or physical torment. A professional can help a self-harmer discover the root cause of their problem, in this way enabling them to stop cutting.

Cutting: The What & Why of Self-Harm

NOTE: Article was originally published in Enrich Magazine, a publication of Mercury Drugstore, in the Philippines.


Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on February 23, 2021:

Thank you for your kind words, emge. Love your adjective, "wonderful". It made me feel so good!

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on February 23, 2021:

Yes, hope it answers some of your questions:)

MG Singh emge from Singapore on February 23, 2021:

You have written a wonderful article and covered some very interesting points.

Sp Greaney from Ireland on February 23, 2021:

@grand old lady. Thanks for the link. I must watch that this weekend.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on February 22, 2021:

Hi Sangre, I first learned of self harming through this movie. It answers some of the things you brought up.

Sp Greaney from Ireland on February 22, 2021:

It is so sad to think that kids or even adults in bad situations would rely on self harming to deal with things that are beyond their control.

I think more research and more compassion about dealing with these issues is needed by society.

This is a topic that I never hear much on and you have really shared a lot of useful information in this article about self harming.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on February 21, 2021:

I absolutely agree with you Flourish Anyway. Cutting is done alone and in secret. When they cover their scars with tattoos, they become part of a larger community of people who love tatoos.

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 21, 2021:

These young folks need professional psychological intervention. The scars may be on the outside but what drives these self-harming behaviors needs urgent attention.

As an aside, former self-cutters sometimes turn to tattoos to hide their scars and help turn their story of tragic self-harm into one of triumph. It’s a way of reclaiming and reinventing. One more reason not to judge others.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on February 21, 2021:

Yes Devika, that's so true. What's sad is that the opposite tends to occur, driving them to self-harm. They are bullied in school, and at home, they are criticized by their parents. Oftentimes parents don't realize that their children need professional health. It's due either to denial or simply a lack of knowledge.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 21, 2021:

Self-harm is a serious problem and needs the attention of others to help teens feeling this way. Great hub informative, and nicely put together.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez (author) from Philippines on February 21, 2021:

Ms Dora, I love your use of the word, "unconditionally". Yes, that's really what these young people need, unconditional love. Thank you for the visit. You always bring sunshine wherever you are:):):)

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 21, 2021:

Your article is quite revealing. The one thing I think everyone can do to help the situation is to love the sufferers unconditionally. I learned so much. Thank you.

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