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Sharon Chirban, Ph.D.

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Cutting: Demi Lovato's Struggle With Self-Injury Is Raising Awareness

Posted: 11/08/2010 6:53 am

Angeline Jolie has admitted to it. Princess Diana shared her struggles with it. Courtney Love used to go so far as to do it on stage at her concerts. And most recently, Disney star Demi Lovato checked herself into a treatment facility for issues that include cutting.

But even with these high profile names, cutting is still something we have a low general awareness about.

It's a phenomenon that is hard to explain, and even harder to understand. The idea of inflicting self-injury on oneself in an attempt to feel better just doesn't add up. But cutting is a reality for more than these big name stars. It is a trend that is becoming more prevalent in young women.

First of all, it is important to realize that cutting is not a suicidal gesture. Instead, it is a coping mechanism -- albeit, a self-destructive one -- for negative feelings about oneself, stress and anxiety. The behavior usually begins in adolescence, and if untreated or left unaddressed, will likely continue into adulthood. Parents and others are wrong to assume that a girl will simply grow out of it when she gets older.

Nine out of 10 girls who try cutting don't adopt the behavior. But for those who do, it can reinforce and even exacerbate their current emotional problems.

For some, cutting allows them to feel as if they are regaining control over some aspect of their lives, and for others, it is a way to cope with the internal struggles they are facing. The act of cutting is their outlet from the pain and allows for an escape, even if only temporary. Because the relief felt is only temporary, repeated cuts are necessary for continued relief. As time goes on, cutting can become habit-forming -- not an addiction, per se, but a compulsive behavior one uses to cope with personally overwhelming situations, like bullying, a breakup or even failing a school test.

Medical Health America and Discovery Health report that over the past decade 1 percent, or over 2 million, people have cut themselves or inflicted self-injury. Further data suggests that 1 in every 200 girls ages 13 to 19 has cut themselves.

While each story is different, the triggers are often the same: overwhelming pressure from parents, rejection from a social group, domestic abuse, relationship breakup or anything that fills the person up with intolerable feelings.

Take Demi Lovato for example. The 18-year-old has openly discussed the pain she endured during middle school as a victim of bullying. For her, bullying was the catalyst that led to both an eating disorder and cutting.

Lovato is facing the same issues many young American women do. Just last weekend, I received an emergency text from a 15-year-old patient who had cut herself after a bullying incident. In response to this assault and humiliation, her recourse was to make a mild but deliberate slit along her inner forearm. This patient is aware of her problem, but she doesn't know of any other way to cope than to cut.

Cutting tends to trend among young women who find it to be a release for feelings of frustration and shame. It is sometimes a cry for help and other times these girls go out of their way to cover it up. In the latter case, these girls select concealable areas of the body, like the upper thighs or upper arms, to hide what they've done.

Lovato's decision to enter a treatment facility earlier this week to help her cope with these physical and emotional issues was a proactive step by the troubled young star. She is now tasked with building a new coping mechanism for the negative feelings that seem to emanate from her body image.

Her story is bringing attention as well to the new dimensions of self-injury and self-destructive behavior. Young women growing up in this culture need to be encouraged to learn healthy strategies for managing their own internal struggles.

There is a lesson to be learned from Lovato, that while she is in the national spotlight and facing her problems publicly, she is not very different from the young women struggling with these same issues privately.

 
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