Content warning: The following column addresses self-harm, eating disorders and suicide. If you are in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
Looking down at the underside of my arm, at skin I rarely expose, I see the unnatural, vertical and scarred lines painted across my arm. A time they weren’t there seems unimaginable and far away.
I turn over my arm. But, I am greeted with splotchy, raised red marks – circular scars, small in diameter. The marks are spread across my fingers, face, chest and legs.
A recent meta-analysis – a study of studies – about the prevalence of self-harm worldwide found about 17 percent of adolescents self-harm, according to the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery.
I am one of the 17 percent.
The media doesn’t represent me. It’s a trope we often hear, but as I look in the mirror and glance at my scars, I know it to be true. The media doesn’t accurately represent a spectrum of self-harm, so I will.
I’ve heard it said more than once that those who self-harm are just looking for attention. A picture from late 2013 comes to mind. A picture surfaced of the arm of a crazed fan who had carved the name of a popular K-pop star named “LUHAN” into her arm. The story blew up on social media, with many criticizing the girl for her obsessive, desperate attempt at his attention.
When Hollywood depicts self-harm, it feels as though the depiction itself is seeking attention for its use of edgy gore, as though it hopes that a depression narrative will prevail to make it a harrowing, heart-wrenching story. I once caught an accidental glimpse of the cutting scene from “13 Reasons Why.” The bathtub turned red with blood, and I remember feeling my breath hitch. Although the scene wasn’t realistic, it hit too close to home.
“Honestly I feel like the image of self-harm is triggering for those who already self-harm and also gives younger people ideas,” said Ariella Salinas, a 20-year-old from Montana. “It makes them feel like it’s an option. I believe that kids, especially young teens, are impressionable. I know when I first started harming myself that cutting was the main method I was made aware of by media and those around me. I found myself too nauseated by the idea of cutting, so I found other ways to harm myself such as burning, starving, letting myself freeze out in the cold, repeatedly scratching my arms with my nails, hitting my arms on anything and bruising myself through punching myself. It was a dark time.”
Salinas has fair skin and a bright smile. Her hair falls at her shoulders and as she speaks slowly, you can hear the way she reflects on each word. On the surface, Salinas is just a normal girl, her physical and mental disabilities invisible to the naked eye.
Before she was properly diagnosed with fibromyalgia, Salinas struggled to deal with her depression as she went to a new public school. “I was put down by faculty and the people that I thought should care about me,” Salinas said. “It only became obvious to me years after the incident that I was truly disabled back then. My American with Disabilities Act rights were violated before my eyes, and I didn’t know what I could do at the time. The stress of trying my best to conform despite my disability and still not being able to fit in was devastating. The school and their lack of understanding made me feel like I had no control. I took control the only way I knew how, by self-harm.”
Like many others who engage in self-harm, Salinas found it as way to maintain control. A common theme among those who self-harm, whether it be by cutting, burning, starving, picking or punching walls, is trying to re-establish some sense of control in their life.
“I believe people turn to it to escape themselves. I see it as a spiritual disease, one that requires the individual to address control issues in their life,” said Susan Vos-Dupree, an LSU alumna and licensed therapist with 13 years of experience. “Treatment often centers around acceptance, being grounded in the current moment and developing skills for this other than self-injury.”
“I wanted people to know I was hurting on the inside, so I tried to bring that feeling outside of myself in a visible way,” Salinas said. “I had burn marks on my arms from incense sticks and lighters, and scars from repeatedly scratching myself until my arms bleed. Sometimes my arms or legs would be bruised due to hitting them on other objects and hitting myself.”
Salinas’ testimony concurs with the idea that self-harm is done in the need for attention. However, the media too often shames individuals’ desire for attention rather than exploring why the person needed it. I am not condoning self-harm as means to garner attention. However, it’s necessary we acknowledge that resorting to these methods to gain attention is a sign of deeper issues that need to be addressed.
As with most things, there is a spectrum and diversity among those who self-harm. While some actively struggle with it, others may do it once in a blue moon — like punching the wall when they’re exceptionally mad. Others can just pop a pimple and walk away, but I am not one of those people.
Unlike Salinas, I never felt my experiences with self-harm were to seek attention. Rather, I felt they attracted unwanted attention as strangers stared at the gashes on my face. Trichotillomania and dermatillomania – compulsive hair and skin picking – are still forms of self-harm I actively grapple with.
I found and still find myself trying to control my intrusive thoughts and body image by correcting my own imperfections, even if that means tearing apart my own skin. I remember being in third grade and having pulled out so much hair, it looked like I had a surfer’s cut. I’ve even been prescribed antibiotic ointments for the wounds I made myself.
When you feel like your life is falling apart and it’s the one thing you can control, you’re not apt to let self-harm go. If any signs of self-injury were visually obvious, I’d have been forced to stop like I had so many times before. Because of this, I made choices like cutting my right thigh rather than my arm and picking at my chest rather than my face.
“Most people think that those who self-harm mainly just do it on their wrists and other highly visible areas, whereas a lot of the time it’s in areas that are rarely ever seen unless you’re naked,” said University of Colorado Boulder sophomore Julien Leroy.
I’ve known Leroy for 16 years, and we grew up together. With dual citizenship in France and the U.S., he is 6-foot-4 and resembles a happier, French version of John Lennon. Despite how close we are, both he and I hid our experiences with self-harm from each other until last December.
“I kept it hidden from basically everyone I knew outside of my immediate family, who had found out without me explicitly telling them about it, and have now, over a year after quitting, just now begun to open up to friends that I’ve known for the majority of my life,” Leroy said.
But, some forms of self-harm progress to a degree that you can no longer hide them, or to the point of addiction. For political science junior Shunna Bosman, it once progressed to the point of hospitalization.
Bosman has a bubbly personality and is chatty and sweet. Full of energy, she often runs several miles a night, a far cry from the depleted, fatigued person she was when she struggled with anorexia.
She found herself skipping meals and working out excessively as a way to cope with her emotions, something she felt she had a hard time expressing in the black community, as well as a way to control how she was perceived by others.
“I wanted it to be my way,” Bosman said. “If I do this, then I look like this in this shirt. I’m in control of the narrative, in control of the situation, like it’s on my time, on my watch. I was running the show.”
But she wasn’t running the show, and her body was giving up on her.
She recalls the day she was hospitalized. “I was trying to sit up. It was almost like sleep paralysis, but I knew that wasn’t what it was because I could wiggle, I guess, but I couldn’t sit up. I remember I was crying. My mom, she was knocking on my door like, ‘You know you got to go to school,’ and I couldn’t even say anything. She comes over and she moves the blanket off me and it’s just like… this shell of a body.”
College students are at a higher risk for self-injury than the general population, with rates ranging from 17 percent to 35 percent, according to the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.
“Common self-harm behaviors are shifting and morphing along with the rest of society, and they are definitely more prevalent in college students, as this is a time of transition and identity formation,” Vos-Dupree said.
As self-harm behaviors shift, the University’s way of addressing mental health needs to, as well.
“Our generation is technology- driven,” Bosman said. “People are not reading, they are not picking up papers and pamphlets and books. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what it is. I feel like it should be more technology-driven, like put it up on a monitor. You’re more likely to pick up a monitor than you are to pick up a pamphlet.”
If you’re struggling with self-harm, or know someone who is, don’t wait around for the University to help you.
“Please go get help,” Salinas said. “I know everyone says, ‘Get help,’ but that’s because it’s true. Sometimes another perspective can give you better solace than hurting yourself. Not suffering alone gives you extra strength to ride out the wave when you’re in a dark space. Find a friend, family member, counselor, licensed psychiatrist or psychologist, even an app could help. Start to ‘build a ladder.’ Building a ladder means find coping methods. Find things that make you happy. Build yourself up. You may fall a few rungs at times, but you can always return to the ladder you built and start climbing again, and then you can add to it even more the longer you keep going on. Perhaps some of the rungs get old and no longer work for you, but you can always replace it and find a new way forward. Living without self-harm requires you to put more into self-care and maintenance. It takes time and effort, but I promise it is well worth it. We are all worthy of love, especially from ourselves.”
Elli Korn is a 19-year-old mass communication sophomore from Dallas, Texas.