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Why We Can't Overlook Self-Harm in Young People

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If you’re like me, you may have a few scars that when you see them, take you right back to the exact moment you were wounded.  Maybe you are reminded of a traumatic event from your childhood. Perhaps you wear ones that have become bragging rights as a result of a risk you took on an epic adventure. A scar from childbirth might remind you of the miracle of life. Some are clearly visible. Others have faded from our skin but remain etched vividly in our minds seemingly forever.

Recently, I caught a glimpse of my scars — not the ones on my knee from when I got stitches as a kid, but the ones on my arm which are now just faded scratch marks. They brought me right back to the moments in my life when I impulsively gave in to intense emotional pain by engaging in self-harm.

In these moments, my purpose was never to kill myself. My goal was to relieve the struggle that had become too difficult to handle emotionally. It was nothing specific. I was a pretty normal teenager. However it was during these years my mood disorder decided to show up and along with typical teenage hormones and rebellion, it was sometimes too much to handle. I’ll never forget the day when a friend of mine confided in me about cutting herself. I had never heard of anyone doing this. Immediately I judged her as “crazy” and became very upset with her. However, a few days later, I experienced an intense mixed state in which the sensation of my skin crawling, the feeling of being trapped followed by a moment of self-hatred for having these feelings, became overwhelming. Suddenly, I remembered what my friend had done. I knew if I tried it I would be stepping into something very dark. It made absolutely no sense but it seemed like the perfect answer at the time.

I won’t go into details because it’s not necessary and I don’t want to trigger anyone who currently struggles with cutting, but I want to look at the bigger picture. It was during my teens and early adulthood when I occasionally resorted to this behavior as a coping mechanism for feelings and emotions that took over my body that I didn’t yet understand. That was a long time ago and it was not very common at the time. However, today there are kids as young as 9 I have personally encountered who if not yet acting upon the urges, are at the very least contemplating it.

As a teacher, my interactions with young kids and teenagers dealing with self-harm have time after time revealed common themes — hopelessness, extremely low self-esteem and the perception they are not being heard. They believe with all their heart that no one cares for or understands them. Some kids hide it well (I did). Some kids lie about it (I did). Some are to the point when they don’t care who sees their marks. Many of these kids feel no sense of worth or purpose. They’ve lost hope at such an early age and on the surface, believe there is nothing wrong with physically harming themselves. Try to imagine what it would feel like to be that young and confused, convinced you are utterly alone and the only way you know how to cope is to turn your emotional pain into physical. The urge can feel more powerful than any possible consequence because you simply stopped caring about what happens to you.

My whole point in sharing this is to let people know there really is hope even when we feel hopeless. The hope never goes away, we just can’t see past what we are experiencing. It took me a lifetime to figure that out. I believe it is now my responsibility to spread that message so we can help others who deal with this either personally or with a loved one. I went from a self-harming teenager with an undiagnosed mood disorder to a person who has been able to accomplish things I never would have thought possible. This is my opportunity to use what I’ve experienced for good.

My personal struggles have given me strength and the necessary tools for when I find myself sitting across a table from students who have found themselves in seemingly hopeless situations. I’ve been able to look them directly in the eyes, genuinely express my concern and show compassion because I’ve been there. I can relate. I can be there for them in their time of need. For that I am grateful.

Today I have a tattoo of a runner on my wrist signifying the first marathon I ran with my husband that we finished hand in hand. I love when kids ask me what my tattoo means. That question opens the door for me to share how it took strength, courage and determination for me to achieve a lofty goal. We discuss the pain — physical and mental — and obstacles I encountered while training, but also how I was able to work through it in order to fulfill a dream. We talk about hardships and how so often we desire to throw in the towel, but despite all of that, it is possible to summon the strength and energy to carry on. It is a perfect metaphor for life and is applicable to so many situations.

So right now, this is now our chance. Even if we don’t yet get it, we can at least try. Every single one of us can do that by showing grace, love and compassion toward those who are hurting. We can love unconditionally without judging the choices someone is making. If you know — or even suspect — someone who self-harms in any way, do not overlook it. You are called to let them know you care. Tell them you are there for them and that they are worthy of being loved. And don’t stop. It likely won’t be a one-time conversation because the pain is deep and the beliefs can feel real to them.

I believe we need to remember God loves us all. He bears the ultimate scars to prove it. I believe we must reflect his love by making a commitment to wake up each day and offer those around us forgiveness, grace and unconditional love. When I’ve looked deeply into the eyes of a hurting student and expressed love and concern, I’ve witnessed the weight of their pain being lifted from their shoulders. Imagine if we all took the time to really see and no matter how scary it can be, to love and not judge. I can only imagine what it would have been like to experience empathy and acceptance from someone who caught a glimpse of my scars as a teenager — but I truly believe it would have made a difference.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Thinkstock photo via chronicler101.

Originally published: June 24, 2017
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