Self-harm is a growing problem; what parents need to watch for

Special Report: Number of people self harming is on the rise

In the United States, between two and three million people self-harm, which means inflicting pain on their bodies to cope with emotions.

70% of the time, self-harm plays itself out through cutting of skin.

The number of children inflicting pain on themselves continues to rise and Mid-Missouri psychologists and doctors said they see the most cases during the school year.

Self-harming is a problem that is often hard to talk about and difficult to see.

Doctors said the majority of those who self harm do so on parts of their bodies that can easily be hidden.

Dr. Lane Young-Walker, an associate Professor of Psychiatry said, "Usually when someone is self-harming they have significant emotional distress and have very poor coping skills."

For some, cutting is a way to end emotional pain. For others, it's simply to feel something at all.

"They feel it and that's sometimes a part of the gratification from it. They are saying they don't feel anything emotionally so they cause themselves physical harm to know they are alive," said Dr. Jacqueline Ellis, a psychologist. 

What helps with that feeling is the opioids or endorphins released when someone hurts themselves.

"It's like asprins being released into your bodies to kind of numb the pain," said Ellis.

"Endorphins are released when you cut and that in a sense can give a sense of high or euphoric mood," said Young-Walker.

Doctors do have a few strategies for children that feel like they cannot stop self harming. One of them is to keep a rubber band on their wrist at all times and when they feel like they want to self-harm, they just snap the rubber band on their wrist and that physical pain then helps with the emotional pain. Now another strategy is ice cubes. They recommend children who want to self-injure hold an ice cube in their hand as long as they start feeling pain which then cancels out the emotional pain.

Two high school students ABC 17 talked to both had once found themselves with a razor in hand cutting themselves.

The 14-year-old boy said he did it because he was bullied. Those bullied are in fact 400 times more likely to harm themselves during their teenage years.

The 15-year-old girl said she did it because of the mean Facebook posts she was getting on her pictures. 

Social media, to some doctors, is a contributing factor for the rise in children self-harming.

"They talk about it on Facebook, Twitter, and social media so it seems like to them everybody is doing it so they want to try it," said Ellis.

Other counselors have found social media as a tool to help find the students who may be cutting.

Isaiah Cummings, a counselor for Columbia Public Schools, said, "We have a lot of students that come to us and say 'hey, please check on this student for me. It's a good friend of mine and they are making comments on Facebook.'"

Social media and age aside, self-harming affects all ages, race, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds around the world. 

Princess Diana was one of the first public figures to admit such a behavior, one that some criticized as an attention-seeking behavior for the princess.

"I was ashamed that I couldn't cope with the pressures. I just hurt my arms and legs," said Diana.

Unfortunately, that stigma still holds true in today's society.

Cummings said, "There may be times when that plays into it but it's obviously something we take seriously every time we hear it. And typically, there are underlying issues even if it appears to be attention-seeking."

There are some warning signs parents can watch out for in their children.

The obvious ones are cuts, bruises, or burns anywhere on their bodies. 

Often, they are hidden so that is another sign if your child, for instance, only wears long-sleeved shirts.

Depression, stress, and anxiety are also signs children could be hurting themselves. 

There are a wide variety of treatments for self-harm, including therapy and medicine for depression and anxiety.

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