Tuesday, November 12, 2019

An Epidemic of Self-Harm

Girls today have more freedom, more independence, more opportunity and more autonomy than girls anywhere have ever had. And yet, adolescent girls seem to be more prone to suffer psychiatric problems, among them, eating disorders and self-harm. For all the insufferable rants about learning to love one’s body, for all its flaws and imperfections, girls today are more likely to punish their bodies, even to the point of carving them up with razor blades.

Benedict Carey reports on the social contagion. He notes, and I underscore, that the best treatments derive from cognitive therapy. It might be the dialectical behavioral treatment invented by Marsha Linehan or other forms of cognitive treatment. I mention this point in order to suggest that help is available. For now I wish to examine the social contagion that has produced so much self-harm.

Carey opens:

Self-injury, particularly among adolescent girls, has become so prevalent so quickly that scientists and therapists are struggling to catch up. About 1 in 5 adolescents report having harmed themselves to soothe emotional pain at least once, according to a review of three dozen surveys in nearly a dozen countries, including the United States, Canada and Britain.

The phenomenon did exist before. Only now, it has spread like a contagion:

“It used to be that this kind of behavior was confined to the very severely impaired, people with histories of sexual abuse, with major body alienation,” said Barent Walsh, a psychologist who was one of the first therapists to focus on treating self-injury, at The Bridge program in Marlborough, Mass., now a part of Open Sky Community Services. “Then, suddenly, it morphed into the general population, to the point where it was affecting successful kids with money. That’s when the research funding started to flow, and we’ve gotten a better handle on what’s happening.”

True enough, one important cause lies in the media presentation of the problem. When the nation decides to have a national conversation about a mental health issue, it tends to produce more instances. When admired celebrities like Princess Diana openly discuss cutting or especially bulimia,they provoke young girls to emulate them. One emphasizes that the unfortunate princess would have done better to keep her emotional torments to herself.

In the 1990s, the idea of self-injury and its underlying psychic misery began to enter popular culture. Princess Diana talked about it, in an interview; so did actors Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. A popular 2010 music video by Pink contained vivid scenes of cutting. By then, dozens of online forums were providing community, support and understanding to those who self-injured — and also, some experts say, often reinforcing the behavior, as a badge of membership in a special club.

“Nowadays a lot of younger girls especially are influenced by various media, where this whole self-harm thing is glamorized,” said Blue, who quit harming herself earlier this year. “I was hospitalized, and it was strange: A lot of other girls were impressed by my scars, like, ‘How did you get those? I’m jealous.’ It’s disturbing, this gratification — like, people who I guess feel good or happy when they do it.”

And we can speculate about other causes. After all, girls have been taught that they have autonomous ownership of their bodies… and that they can do whatever they want to their bodies. Does that include cutting? Girls have been induced, by the culture and even by some adults, to engage in sexting behavior. They have been told that they should not feel ashamed. And yet, reality, even psychological reality, is telling them a different story. You cannot just “pluck your magic twanger” and erase feelings of shame. You cannot eliminate them by insisting that no one judge you ill. You might try to punish yourself, by cutting yourself, or even by flagellating yourself. 

Medieval religious practiced the art of self-harm in order to do penance for their sins. In particular, they flagellated themselves to punish their flesh for its desires, for tempting them to sin. Are today’s young women, told endlessly to explore their sexuality, to try out new forms of sexual expression, to hook up with anonymous boys, feeling ashamed of themselves? And are they trying to numb the shame by punishing themselves, by treating it as a sin? 

And then there is this: how much do today’s girls like being girls when they are told that being a girl is going to subject them to abuse, harassment and assault. And that they are going to be victimized by predatory toxic males. If they feel themselves attracted by such males, how are they to manage their desires?


trigger warning said...

"suddenly, it morphed into the general population, to the point where it was affecting successful kids with money. That’s when the research funding started to flow..."

A bizarre, or perhaps telling, use of the word "morph", in my opinion.

For investors and entrepreneurs, I predict the "epidemic" will snowball to the "crisis" phase as the "therapeutic" community base is further subsidized and encouraged to generate evermore intricate and impressively counterintuitive critical psycho-logical theory. Expect growth in topical high-end hotel conference and "awareness/handwringing seminar" business lines.

Anonymous said...

A Bucket of Hot Diarrhea Was Randomly Poured on a Woman by a Homeless Man

MamaTod said...

It's my opinion that the current tattoo/piercing craze is a form of self-harm and serves as a pain relief measure, too. I've actually heard someone say "been having a rough time lately, time for some ink."

UbuMaccabee said...

Ahhh, the tattoo, the common man’s form of self-expression. Maybe cutting oneself is also an art form? Like pouring a bucket of hot diarrhea over someone can be a form of performance art.