Anna is a Christian. She goes to church. She’s intelligent, articulate, pretty, and is in her second year at university. She also cuts herself with a penknife, leaving red scars on her arms, elbows, and palms, or words like “fat” on her stomach.
But she’s not weird, freaky or unusual -- North American kids who cut number about 4 million, and rising. Ten years ago, it was estimated one in 250 youth were cutters. Last year, incoming freshman surveys found it prevalent among one in five girls and one in seven boys. It’s an epidemic in Europe, Asia, Australia, crossing all racial, social and economic barriers.
What gives? Some believe it’s a fad, and for Ellen, a Boston mom of three teens, that was true. A few years ago, her son made a few half-hearted scratches on his arm, but stopped once she found out. Two years later, her daughter’s cutting lasted only until she had a chance to accuse her mother of not paying attention.
But Cindy Westacott, youth director at Bendale Bible Chapel in Scarborough, sees its more serious side. Fast-tracked into the world of cutting by one young girl at her church’s drop-in, Westacott learned that “there are people in pain everywhere and we can’t pretend Christians are exempt.”
An estimated 50% have been physically or sexually abused -- by relatives, family friends, coaches -- but some front line youth workers put the number closer to 80%. It’s prevalent among girls, as young as 14 and on into their 40s.
Saskatchewan psychologist and international speaker Dr. Marv Penner told his audience at the Canadian Youth Worker's Conference (CYWC) in 2007 that “the sad reality of the world so many of these kids live in, this level of despair, the only way they can deal with it is to do injury to their own bodies.”
From his experience with these kids, Penner has found that “most have a great sense of humour, regular kids who play basketball, are top of the class, on the drama and dance teams, articulate, bright and often artistic.”
Cutting isn’t a case of body modification out of control, demon possession, self-mutilation, or a botched attempt at suicide, he adds. They don’t want to die, and often carry first aid supplies.
What cutting is differs from person to person. Some cut to escape pain. Anna describes it as taking her “mind off other things that hurt more. It kinds of feels like time stops and there’s nothing else in the world.”
For some it’s a way to communicate. “If they can’t use words, they’ll use a knife,” explains Westacott. “One girl cut ‘sorry’ on her arm because she’d done something she thought might upset me.”
Others cut to feel something -- numbed from excessive stimuli like screentime or the pressure to excel -- or to disconnect from constant media reminders of hopelessness, environmental degradation, global strife, poverty.
Jennifer Rowsell, a Salvation Army youth pastor in Fredericton who works with kids who cut, finds that “teens think more deeply than we give them credit for. They want spiritual meaning and purpose. But many are lost with no spiritual belief; if this life is it, then this world is really hopeless.”
But what’s really at the root of it, says Westacott, is loss, abandonment and rejection.
For Anna, it’s about being heard, having some listen, and being “rescued.” Like many cutters, she struggles with anorexia, as well. As she explains, if she stops eating and needs hospitalization, maybe her mother will finally notice. But if she eats, the goal will never be realized, so she “punishes” herself for lack of self-control.
Cutting can have unintentional beginnings. Anna’s guidance counsellor asked her what tools she used and Anna, wanting to continue the weekly listening and talking, started to use them.
There’s also a strong copy-cat element – a recent Canadian study on group homes found cutting spreads fast once a cutter is introduced. And websites like psyke.org, where pictures posted of the previous nights’ activities, give kids bad ideas. That’s why Rowsell recommends parents be “super vigilant” about their children’s Internet use, and to get involved, start talking.
Once cutting takes hold, especially with the endorphin and dopamine release, it becomes an addiction, which “is never about increasing pleasure, but about managing pain,” Penner points out. But it’s very hard to stop.
Those on the sidelines don’t need to feel helpless, however. Look for warning signs like “mood changes, random comments, darker Facebook entries, wearing long sleeves in summer,” says Jessica, a former cutter who now works with kids in Calgary. Commit to building relationships -- she recalls resisting attempts to get her to join in youth group because that would deter her from cutting plans for later that night.
Exposing the “secret” is sometimes enough to stop the cutting, but when parents don’t know, telling them can be a difficult call. Youth workers don’t want to jeopardize the relationship of trust they’ve built, but if physical danger, parents need to know. What Penner does is offer to go together with the kids when they tell.
Parents are predictably reactive, but Anna recommends putting feelings aside, and “genuinely listening. Judging, getting upset, or crying will only push her away. I know you want her to be scar-free and perfect again the next day, but it doesn’t work like that. She doesn’t need you mad at her, when she’s already judging herself. Even if it doesn’t look like it, she doesn’t want you to be sad or hurt. Don’t make her feel bad that she needs help.”
And cutters definitely need professional help to explore the roots of their pain, although parents, pastors, youth workers, and friends have a major role to play in healing. “They need people who are present, listening, loving and supportive, and committed,” Penner says, “even when they’ve shown you the most ugly part of themselves.”
Listening is your best skill, he adds. And if you can’t be there in person, email, MSN, or the phone are equally good. Rowsell agrees: “when people show the real, authentic presence of God by caring and being there, you see results.”
Indeed, it was a committed adult female friend who helped Anna stop cutting nearly two years ago: “I credit her with pulling me through this in her gentle but firm, loving way, knowing that she’d email gave me something to wait for. The constant hugs were really helpful. They're just cyberhugs, I thought at first... No one would actually hug me in real life... But having that everyday, I just came to accept it... Having someone tell you that you're okay and that they love you has an effect, even if at first you don't believe them.”
Anna still struggles with the temptation, but is currently upheld by a few older Christian moms who listen without judgment or interruption, and come armed with hugs and a heart for God. As Anna herself says, “love is really everything in this world.”
What works, what doesn’t
Provide nurturing care – assess wounds to see if they need medical attention, but don’t spend too much time looking
Constantly reiterate your unconditional love and commitment but draw boundaries around availability
focus them on learning better coping strategies, and healthier activities
let encouragement be your approach; challenge their negative self-views by pointing out their good points; Anna says being called sweet or sweetie makes her feel happy
most kids find comfort in prayer and Bible reading; reiterate that God is present and grieves with them; search for verses that provide hope that things change through the power of God; refrain from preaching or guilt trips like “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit”
Brett Ullman, www.brettullman.com
Tennessee-based Mercy Ministries has helped thousands of young women who’ve cut – with about 85% maintaining the improvements.
SAFE (self abuse finally ends) Canada
Marv Penner: Hope and Healing
Stephen Levenkron: Cutting, Understanding & Overcoming Self-Mutilation, 1998
A Bright Red Scream (good, but triggering) See my pain (strategies for stopping)
Cut by Patricia McCormick (good but very triggering)
Inside a Cutter’s Mind, a Christian book
Skin Game, well written autobiography