Young People and Self Abuse

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

A study was published this June 2006 that reported that one in five students at two Ivy League universities engaged in self mutilation. The study pointed out that the problem is more wide spread than what is happening at the Ivy League schools. It is estimated that some 14% of young people engage in self injury. In addition, the largest majority of self mutilators are women. Surveys show that 55% of all self abusers are women. Some but not all of the men are bisexual or are dealing with sexual identity issues. Self injury begins as early as 14 years of age but the largest percentages occur between the ages of 17 and 22 years of age. Most people do not seek help for their injuries and, in fact, try to hide their scars are marks from others because of the shame they feel about what they have done. Many methods of self harm are used ranging from scratching the skin until it bleeds to self cutting with a sharp knife. These actions are in marked contrast to suicide attempts although any person can misjudge and inflict an unintentional life threatening injury.

What Causes Young People to Self Mutilate?


This is a complicated question with few concrete answers. Several things are known about the issue of self abuse:

Self abuse can be used the in the same way as the abuse of a substance: it is an attempt to numb feelings of emotional pain from having been traumatized.

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Examples of trauma that may cause a young person to self abuse range from being the victim of incest to having been physically and emotionally abused as a small child.

In some cases the self abuser feels so extremely alienated from life that physical pain is the only way they seem to feel alive.

The pain resulting from cutting oneself may result in feeling of relief.

Self cutting may be an attempt to communicate feelings that are too over whelming to put into words or to actually tell anyone else about.

Inflicting pain on oneself is an attempt to exercise some sense of control over ones life, much like the anorectic self starves to gain a sense of control.

Self injury is not an attempt to manipulate other people or to gain sympathy. To reiterate, those who injure themselves maintain strict secrecy, do this in isolation and feel intense shame about this behavior. The victim wears typically wears long sleeve shirts and blouses and full length pants and jeans in order to hide scars.

These young people suffer from low self esteem, depression and feelings of helplessness. Many are shy and withdrawn although extroversion is no guarantee that the person is not self injuring.

Associated problems with self injury are often eating disorders, especially bulimia nervosa with its cycle of extreme binge eating and purging followed by intense feelings of shame and self hate. In some cases the sufferers do begin to engage in drug abuse. In fact, poor impulse control along with anxiety and self hate accompany all of these problems.

It is important for family and friends to be warm and supportive when and if they become aware of the problem. Scolding, hostility and rejection will only worsen the situation. Psychotherapy along with medication to relieve depression is usually the best approaches to this problem.

While it is possible to recover from this illness, for some, it does persist into later adulthood.

What are your experiences and opinions about this serious problem? Your responses are encouraged.

Keep Reading By Author Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.
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