Students inflict self harm to cope with school stress, depression

Sophie Byvik, Editor-in-Cheif

Sources’ names have been changed.
Some laugh it off. It doesn’t happen here; if it does, it’s one of those emo kids. Them. Not us. But the one in 12 teenagers who practice self-injury – who cut or burn themselves – are more than whatever stereotype we use to comfort ourselves. Self-injury has been almost romanticized, leaving victims like freshman Linda McAllister carrion for peers. McAllister, one of the 15 percent of teenagers who self-harms, began cutting her wrists over a year ago, in August, 2011.
“It’s something people will make fun of you for because they don’t understand,” McAllister said. “[When it happened to me], it was actually because of how I dressed. This guy was like, ‘Are you emo?’ and I guess the guy thought I cut myself because it goes with the stereotype of the look. I had to calmly explain to him that it was something I used to do, and it was an addiction – it’s my past.”
While under intense emotional stress at school and at home, McAllister was influenced by students who turned to self-injury to solve their problems.
“At first I didn’t understand why they did it, but I kind of felt I should try it once to make myself feel better,” McAllister said. “It does numb the emotional pain. It gets your mind off everything. [But] afterwards, I felt like crap. I hated myself, and that’s how it is, all the way through it. You think you’re a monster.”
Using a cheap razor, McAllister would lock herself in her bedroom or bathroom and slice her wrists. Early in her addiction, cutting only occurred after especially traumatic events, but increased to nearly once a week, forcing her to hide her wrists beneath long sleeves, bracelets, and hair bands.
“Eventually, one of my friends saw and told my guidance counselor,” McAllister said. “My parents didn’t understand, so they said it was disgusting and just kind of blamed it on me.”
After being discovered, McAllister’s parents restricted her access to sharp objects, registered her in therapy and at the local gym, and only permitted her to be with friends if an adult was present. Healing her relationship with her parents has been just as difficult as healing her addition.
“It’s gotten better with my mom,” McAllister said. “She understands that you’ve got to be in a lot of emotional pain to convert it to physical pain, but my dad’s really closed-minded.”
Recently, McAllister has found it difficult to resist the urge to cut, because it remains the emotional release she needs.
“Sometimes my mom makes snarky comments, and it hurts,” McAllister said. “She’s supposed to be there for me and she’s picking out my one weakness and tearing it apart. It’s not the best thing to do, but it’s the quick release I need. I am going to try to stop soon. I don’t know when, because I’m temperamental and emotional when I’m trying to stop.”
Although guidance counselor Barry Kennedy stresses that his perspective on self-harming is not expert, he has spent years following research on the subject and observing its effects on his students.
“There’s so many reasons why young people do this,” Kennedy said. “It can be in middle school, high school, and even into the college years. It’s a way of dealing with emotional pain, with people not knowing exactly how to cope. I feel that being a young person today has never been more challenging. It’s a much more complicated life you have than when I was growing up. Students are exposed to so many different things through social media and peer pressure.”
A common belief is that when teenagers cut themselves, they’re yearning for drama or attention. Sophomore Emma Elizabeth Grey refutes this motive; her emotional journey was much more complex.
“We don’t do it for attention,” Grey said. “I can walk down these halls and think, oh, she would never cut, but she might have an eating disorder. It’s not always about boys; we’re not always lesbian or gay. It’s about bullies, or parents, or not feeling included, or having your own mom tell you you’re ugly.”
Grey, who is now in remission, turned to self-injury in sixth grade after intense bullying at school, slicing her wrists and right hip with razors, scissors, and nail clippers.
“I was just looking for ways to cope, and I came across it on Tumblr,” Grey said. “It hit me that maybe that could help me, and it all started. It made me feel relaxed, happy, and kind of saved.”
In seventh grade, Grey’s parents discovered her cutting, took her phone away, and offered her little sympathy, making it easy for Grey to continue. But in ninth grade, Grey’s guidance counselor discovered her habit, and again informed her mother. That spring, Grey found a path that helped her begin her journey of emotional healing.
“The second semester of last year, I got [English teacher Julia] Follendore,” Grey said. “We started off with reading Shakespeare’s poetry and Edgar Allan Poe. I fell in love with [Poe] because it was dark, and I ended up writing a story that got all my feelings out.”
Although her material is often dark and foreboding, writing short fiction and poetry has given Grey an emotional release she was unable to find before.
“Mrs. Follendore was so helpful; she didn’t say no to anything,” Grey said. “She was the only English teacher who gave me a B because other teacher’s didn’t like my dark writing. I have continued to write because writing is very helpful to me. I find myself sitting in class, just starting to write.”
When a guidance counselor is made aware of a student who self-harms (either by a friend, a teacher, or the student themselves), he or she assesses whether the problem is moderate or mild, and calls in family members, other counselors and therapists to help the student address emotional and physical pain.
“We try to get to the bottom of it,” Kennedy said. “There may be varying degrees of it. There are some people that cut pretty severely and the others not so seriously; the fact that they are is a cry for help. I’m in my 44th year working as a counselor, and this concept of cutting has probably been one of the most distressing things I’ve seen occur.”
McAllister felt that after she was reported to her guidance counselor, the department did not offer her the help she needed.
“They tried taking me out and talking to me,” McAllister said. “It didn’t help. It kind of pissed me off. I think they should give an option to kids between talking to an in-school or out-of-school therapist, and if it gets to a certain level, tell their parents.”
Grey, who has found her light at the end of the tunnel through music and writing, believes that, despite great difficulty, an end to the cycle of cutting is possible.
“People say it gets better once you find something you like and that makes you feel happy enough that you’re not self harming,” Grey said. “It will get better. I know everybody says that, but people like me need to believe that.”