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Overwhelmed, some turn to cutting
Teenagers and young adults facing overwhelming emotions turn to self-injury as a way to cope

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Date published: 2/24/2008


One teenager is quiet and reserved, an only child who takes advanced classes and has a hard time putting her feelings into words.

She's 17 and lives in Spotsylvania County.

The other is 18 and outgoing, the second of four children from a military family. She has a part-time job and stays busy with newspaper, marching band and track at her Stafford County school.

The two are high school seniors, but seem to have little in common otherwise.

But both have a secret.

They hurt themselves on purpose.

The Spotsylvania girl has dug her fingernail into her skin until she drew blood.

The Stafford student has been cutting herself with a razor blade throughout high school. She has permanent marks on her wrist and a dotted line of scars across her stomach.

Both self-injure for the same reasons an estimated 2 million to 3 million Americans do, according to self-injury Web sites.

"They don't want to die. They actually are cutting on themselves because they want to live," said Christine Hall, a Petersburg hospital director who recently gave a workshop at Snowden of Fredericksburg, a psychiatric health center.

As Hall explained to Snowden staffers, people self-injure because they don't know other ways to handle overwhelming feelings.

Cutting and burning are the most common techniques, she said, but self-injurers also may pinch or scratch, pull their hair or bang their heads.

Often, people harm themselves because they can't deal with intense emotions that stem from abuse or neglect.

Kayla Reynolds, the 13-year-old Spotsylvania County girl whose father stands accused of killing her last summer, cut herself all over her arms, friends said after her death.

But sometimes, adolescents and young adults do it to release tension or stress.

After the first few times the Stafford girl cut herself, she reached for a razor every time she had a crisis.

"I guess you could say it was almost like an addiction," she said.

The Spotsylvania student said "normal teen stuff," such as pressure from family and school, triggered her episodes.

She wanted to feel something besides sadness.

"I just wanted to cause some kind of physical something--something to get the emotional pain out," she said.

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WHAT IS IT? People intentionally hurt themselves because they don't know how else to cope with overwhelming emotions. HOW COMMON IS IT? A Cornell University study said one in five high school and college students self-injure. Other estimates say 2 million to 3 million Americans are affected, or 1 percent of the population. WHO DOES IT? Every age group, but the majority are females age 13 to 30. METHODS: Cutting, burning, hitting, pinching, pulling hair, breaking bones and banging heads. WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Change in routine and behavior; wearing several hair scrunchies or wristbands; wearing long sleeves in warm weather.

Many therapists follow a program similar to the landmark one developed by S.A.F.E. Alternatives, an Illinois treatment center.

Patients sign a contract and agree to stop. They plan what to do when they get the urge to harm themselves, such as making a list of whom to call for support.

They learn other methods of coping: writing their feelings in journals, listening to therapeutic music, or other distractions such as puzzles and crafts.

Those with serious underlying issues, such as child or sexual abuse, have to work through those, said Christine Hall, a Petersburg hospital director. They'll often harm themselves more as those traumas surface.

"This is a long recovery process," she said. "They're not gonna stop in a month or so."

Those who can't stop harming themselves often have to be hospitalized. They may not want to commit suicide, but their harmful actions happen more often--and become more severe.


Rappahannock Area Community Services Board: 373-3223

Mental Health America of Fredericksburg: 371-2704

School counselors