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Effects of Self-Harm on Teenagers with Mental Illnesses

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Mental illness in teenagers is at an all time high with the percentage of youths having major depressive episodes rising from 11.93% to 12.63% in the past year, according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness. Not only has this number risen this past year, but has consistently been on the rise for the last decade. Another study done by, Edward Selby a licensed psychologist with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, estimates that 14% of youths participate in some form of self-harm during their teenage years. As this trend continues to go up more and more teens are turning to self-harm to relieve their pain, but how and why do teenagers believe cutting or any form of self harm is the answer to all of their problems?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots organization on mental health, states that ‘self-harm is not a mental illness, but a behavior that indicates a lack of coping skills’ and also that ‘self-harm occurs most often during the teenage and young adult years’. The idea that self-harm is used for people who do not have the necessary coping skills gives more insight as to why teenagers participate in self-harm, since teens are so young they have yet to develop essential coping methods. Furthermore, The National Alliance on Mental Illness clarifies that self-harm stems from past neglect and abuse a lot of the time, but also starts from people feeling ‘overwhelming anger,frustration, or pain’. All of these notions further show why teenagers find themselves self injuring, due to the fact that teenagers are dealing with a multitude of new situations and emotions that they have never encountered before.

To help create a better idea of why people in general become reliant or addicted to self harm the United Kingdom government released a graph showing the cycle of self harm. According to mentalhealth.org.uk, the beginning of self harm is started with some form of emotional suffering, which is then followed by emotional overload and severe panic due to a loss of options. This onslaught of emotions finally builds up until the individual self harms in whatever way they believe will help the most whether it is cutting, burning, or other forms of injury. After the self harm has been done the person will feel temporary relief because of endorphins, also known as the happy chemicals, being released in to the brain. Shortly following the relief however, is an extreme amount of shame and grief from the new scars left on ones body. This shame and grief will continue until a new emotional suffering occurs beginning the cycle once again.

Another issue regarding self harm that is mentioned by the UK mental health website is the fact that some people are more at risk with self harm than others might be. The individuals more at risk include people with mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, young adults who do not have parental figures in their life, members of the LGBT community, and finally people who have dealt with the loss of someone in their life from suicide. Self harm is not limited to only individuals who have gone through or deal with situations such as these but the amount of emotional suffering involved with the mentioned issues definitely raises the risk of people resorting to self injury.

Later on in the article from the UK mental health website they debunk common myths involved with self harm and the people taking part in it. The most common myth of self harm is that it is only done to gain attention from others. The website states that, ‘while there is some research suggesting a link [between self harm and attention seeking], there is no conclusive evidence of this with little or no evidence supporting the belief that self-harm is part of any particular young person subculture.’ A personal opinion of mine is regardless of the reasoning behind self harm each person who is dealing with it should be treated with respect and seriousness because a seemingless minor injury could lead to a more substantial threat. Another myth the website debunks is that all self harm is a suicide attempt. According to the article, ‘self-harm is sometimes viewed as a suicide attempt by people who don’t understand it. For many people self-harm is about trying to cope with difficult feelings and circumstances.’ This is not to say that self injury should be taken lightly because the article then goes on to mention that in a lot of cases self harm can lead into suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. It is important that people that are dealing with others who might be self injuring to take the issue very seriously.

After extensive research I decided there needed to be a way for me to take action and spread awareness for this daunting issue. So, hours of brainstorming later I settled on creating a survey to give out to kids around Denton High School that I could use to show how present self harm is in a teenagers life. Following the survey I planned on creating a mostly life like model to represent cutting on a person’s wrist, however I made the piece of art more abstract than I originally planned to, so it would not trigger anybody who has dealt with self harm in some form. Once the survey was filled out by seventy teens at Denton High School I used the information gathered to create a pie chart for the information gathered. The model of the wrist and the pie charts will be displayed on a tri-fold for my presentation that way a lot of other people can see the effects of self injury in everyone’s lives.

On the subject of the survey that was created not only did seventy students take it, but the statistics from the survey contained, to say the least, worrisome results. Three questions on the survey were asked the first of them being, ‘Have you or someone you know participated in self harm?’. From that question 71.4% of the students taking the survey answered yes, which means almost three-fourths of the student body at Denton High School has been affected by self injury. The second question on the survey was, ‘What kind of self harm was done?’, this was asked to get a better understanding as to what was most common among teenagers. The answers to the question revealed that cutting is the most common form of self harm with 66.7% of people clicking on that option. A far second for forms of self harm was punching/slapping oneself with 16.7% of the votes. The remaining other 16.7% of answers were non-applicable as those taking the survey had never been affected by self harm. These daunting numbers showed how teenagers self harmed, however it still lacked a reason as to why they wanted to in the first place. To try to find an answer for that very question I made the last question, ‘Why did you or the person you know participate in self harm?’. 57.1% of people answered that it was done as an escape or release from ones issues and another 14.3% of people said self harm was used as a distraction from their problems. Once again the remaining 28.6% of answers was non-applicable to those who have not dealt with self injury in their life. The main point taken from the survey however is that teenagers are looking for ways to not have to deal with their problems face on. This idea is the same one mentioned before by The National Alliance on Mental Illness that self harm is a result of a lack of coping skills especially in young adults and was only reiterated through the answers to this survey.

Equally important to my project is the model created to give a visual to those who have possibly never seen what self harm could look like. My hope is that if the statistics from the survey do not help someone understand the seriousness of the topic that the model will print an image in their head so they will not be able to forget it.

All things considered, self harm has a very strong effect on those not only involved with it but also those who are around it. Through the findings in my research and the action I took I strongly believe that the issue of self injury stems from a much bigger issue of a lack of teaching of coping skills to adolescents. No one is to blame for not teaching a child specific coping mechanisms when it comes to the topic of self harm, but as a society it is blatantly obvious that something needs to change. The formation of classes throughout middle and high school, possibly even elementary, on ways to deal with tough situations is a necessity at this point in time. Further action needs to be taken by school districts across the state and country, but it has to start with a single school first. My hope is that, starting with Denton High School, new programs and protocols can be implemented into the environment at school whether it be classes or just simple check-ins with individual students.

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