Friday, May 19, 2017

Learning How to Cut Herself

Of course, they have the best of intentions. The producers who recently put on a show about a teenage girl committing suicide wanted to raise awareness of the problem. They seem not to have considered that glamorizing and normalizing teenage suicide might just incite more girls to do the same.

The same applies to the newly glamorous condition of being transgendered. Precious few people seem to understand that since we are dealing with a belief and a conviction, the public presentation of the problem in the media might very well be producing more cases.

Raising awareness is not the panacea that it is knocked up to be. Writing in New York Magazine, Elizabeth King recounts her own experience with cutting herself, but then moves on to ask a researcher in the field about how the media promotes cutting.

She describes her experience:

I cut myself for the first time at age 18, in the closet of my freshman dorm room. It was late afternoon, and my roommates weren’t around. I snuck into the closet, pulled a pink disposable shaving razor from underneath my socks and underwear in the top drawer of my dresser, took off the protective cap, and dragged the blade in a lateral direction across the top of my left thigh. I felt hot, nervous, exhilarated, and guilty.

It’s not so much the why as the what? What are these people trying to accomplish by slicing up and scarring their bodies:

It’s well-established in medical research that most people who self-harm do so with the intention of releasing and relieving psychological pain. By inducing physical pain, the body is triggered to release endorphins, which creates a natural effect similar to morphine, relieving the emotional pain. But while the pain that drives the decision to self-harm comes from the inside, the idea to self-harm itself is very much external.

Looking back at her experience King remarks that she suffered the influence of a television show, called 7th Heaven. But she also recalls a discussion that she learned in middle-school. These gave her the idea:

I was deeply depressed when I started cutting, but in the moments leading up to the first time I hurt myself, I wasn’t thinking about my problems so much as a once-popular and very wholesome TV show I watched with my family: 7th Heaven. The family drama about a pastor, his wife, and their seven kids was popular in the late 1990s, and featured plotlines meant to address family dynamics and the low-hanging social-issue fruit of the day. The episode I had in mind was from 1998, where the third-oldest child in the family, Lucy, has a friend who cuts herself.

When my mental health deteriorated during my freshman year of college, I remember thinking that self-harm was what one did when severely depressed. It seemed like the logical extension of what I was feeling, a connection I’d unconsciously begun to make back when I first learned about the concept of self-harm in my middle-school health class: The way the teacher had described it — a way of gaining control, a brief relief of pain, and so on — sounded to me, in hindsight, like treatment instructions for severe depression. I’ve often wondered if I would have felt the same way about cutting had I never heard about it in school or on television. There’s a historical precedent for self-harm, and in each case, it’s a learned social behavior. If I’d never been taught about self-harm, would I ever have started doing it? Would anyone?

Surely, the teacher was trying to warn children against self-harm. And yet, to a middle school student like Elizabeth King, it sounded like a treatment program.

King turned to Janis Whitlock, a leading researcher, for some insight:

According to Janis Whitlock, the director of Cornell’s Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, there’s no definitive answer, but it seems nearly certain that there is no biological imperative to self-harm. In fact, humans naturally have the opposite impulse: to be physically safe and healthy.

Through her research, Whitlock has found that there are two primary ways that individuals will begin to self-injure. The first is by accident: One young woman that Whitlock had worked with told her that one day, she had accidentally scraped her leg against the sharp edge of a table while she was experiencing a lot of emotional pain. Noticing the slight relief and distraction that came with the physical pain in her leg, the patient got the idea that she could reproduce this sensation through intentional self-harm.

She continues:

But for those who don’t happen upon self-harm by chance, the idea comes from peers, pop culture, and school settings, Whitlock says: Between exposure to peers who self-injure and depictions in the media, it is “really uncommon for a young person not to have come across it” in some fashion. Everyone knows it’s out there, and some people end up seeing it as an option.

Whitlock explains that these days, young people who self-injure almost always fall into this second camp. Whitlock observed the pop-culture effect on self-harm while working with self-injuring teenagers in the 2000s, a time when explicit pop-culture references to self-harm had been showing up for a couple of decades.

The antidote, Whitlock says, is to avoid invoking these pop-culture representations when educating teenagers about self-harm. In fact, she adds, the best prevention strategy may be not to dwell on it at all – focusing on self-harm in health education, psychological settings, or peer-to-peer support scenarios can also backfire.

Keep this all in mind when considering how the ambient culture produces different types of mental afflictions. Or better, how its wish to raise awareness about problems ends up causing more of the problem… by giving people ideas.


Leo G said...

Reminds me of the article, I believe you referenced, about anti-bullying programs leading to more sophisticated bullies.

Unintended consequences are everywhere in the rush to be first with the latest psych bullshit.

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ares Olympus said...

If you want to learn about self-harm you can go to wikipedia, but maybe information alone isn't as powerful as drama.

I recall seeing a movie "A man called horse" about an English man capture by a native American tribe, and an initiation ceremony where they hooked bones through people's chest, and tied to a post with ropes and they walked around in a circle until they'd finally fall and the bones were ripped out of the flesh.

Many would consider male circumcision as mutilation, although it's easier perhaps to do to babies who will cry regardless, and won't likely remember what happened.

The most popular form of mutilation must be tattoos and piercings, and perhaps there is a masochism in that submission to pain, even if art comes out.

All of these are largely irreversible, and of various degrees of social acceptability, while all being personally repulsive, unless Freud's death instinct has some reality that overpowers our resistance to self-harm.

And for women, child birth was the ultimate risk of self-harm, and yet perhaps surviving that ordeal is partly what creates the material instinct for protecting her offspring with her own life.

Some strength may only come by passing through pain, and it may be self-harm triggers some of those survival systems that never wake up without the pain. But obviously there's no safe way through, and less safe alone, whatever this imagined deeper strength is about.

There's no world I'd encourage self-harm, but I'm not sure if dramatizing it causes more harm than good as long as irrationality exists. If the choice is between risking death in self-mutilation, and suicide, I'll promote the first as better.