Cutting means deliberately slicing the skin with a sharp object, such as a razor blade or knife. Cutting is a form of self-abuse and is referred to by mental health professionals as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). People who cut are trying to injure themselves, but they do not intend to commit suicide. Unfortunately, cutting can cause death if the person cuts too deeply and opens a vein or if the wounds become infected.
Anyone can develop a problem with cutting, but according to the Mayo Clinic, the people most likely to cut themselves are:
- Teenagers or young adults
- Friends with others who self-injure
- People dealing with hard issues such as physical or sexual abuse
- People experiencing mental health issues
- People who use alcohol and drugs
Motives for Cutting
People may start harming themselves for many reasons. GirlsHealth.gov suggests that there are some common motives.
Dealing with Intense Emotions
Sometimes emotional pain such as depression, anxiety, or flashbacks to a previous trauma can be so intense that it is easier to deal with physical pain instead. Cutting can be a way to distract oneself from feelings that hurt too much.
Dealing with Numbness
Some people who cut say that they feel emotionally and physically numb, as if they don't really exist in the world at all. Dr. Alvera Vayzer Milberg, a clinical and school psychologist who is experienced in working with teens who self-harm, explains that this phenomenon is called depersonalization and can be described as an upsetting feeling of detachment. Cutting brings blood and pain. It is a way to feel something, even if the feeling is negative or unpleasant.
Abuse or Traumatic Experiences
Some people who cut were victims of physical or sexual abuse as children. They may have learned that they don't deserve to feel anything but pain. Some people feel the abuse was their fault, so they self-injure as a form of punishment. According to Dr. Milberg, other traumas that spark cutting include severe neglect or rejection from significant others.
A Cry for Help
Years ago, mental health professionals thought that cutting and other forms of non-suicidal self-injury were manipulative acts, done to get attention. However, far from seeking attention, people who cut usually try to hide the evidence of their self-abuse. For instance, they may wear long sleeves to conceal wounds on their arms.
Warning Signs of Cutting
The Mayo Clinic lists several symptoms that can help to identify someone who cuts. These include:
- Excessive scars
- Fresh cuts, especially in areas where it would be hard to cut oneself by accident
- Keeping knives or other sharp objects around most of the time
- Telling improbable stories to explain away injuries
- Being highly impulsive or emotionally unstable
- Wearing long sleeves, even in summer
To this list, Dr. Milberg adds the following warning signs:
- An unwillingness to talk about feelings
- Feeling disempowered
- Suppressed anger at others, or anger directed towards themselves
- A tendency toward impulsive behavior
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Eating disorders such as over-eating or under-eating
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of good coping skills
- Tendency to avoid problems rather than to face them and deal with them
If You Know Someone Who Cuts
Remember that cutting is a sign of emotional distress. Your friend is not cutting herself to be manipulative or to upset you. As her friend, there are a few things you can do to help the situation.
- Express concern about what she is doing and encourage her to talk to a trusted adult.
- Offer to go with her when she talks to the adult, if possible.
- Remind her that there are many different types of counseling and treatment that can help her deal with her feelings, so she won't have to hurt herself anymore.
- If your friend is not willing to reach out for help, it is okay reach out on her behalf. Talk to someone you trust about the problem. Keep on reaching out to people until you find someone who is willing and able to help you and your friend.
If your friend is an adult, encourage her to seek help from her doctor or from a mental health professional. You cannot force her to get help, but you can support her in doing so. As frustrating as your friend's behavior may be, try to avoid losing your temper or breaking off the friendship.
If You Are Cutting
It can be really hard to come forward and talk about injuring yourself, but it's much easier to learn to stop cutting if you have a counselor or another mental health professional in your corner. A mental health professional can help you explore why you cut and find healthier ways to express your emotions and deal with your pain.
Dr. Milberg recommends speaking with someone from the program Self Abuse Finally Ends (S.A.F.E. Alternatives). You can reach them online or by calling 1-800-DONT-CUT (1-800-366-8288).
There are also many activities you can try to stop self-injury.
Confide in trusted family members and friends as well. They can help to support you as you work to end self-abuse.
Talk to a Mental Health Professional
Cutting can be physically and emotionally shattering for the person doing it. The loved ones who watch helplessly also experience great pain. The good news is that mental health treatments such as individual psychotherapy, family therapy, and support groups can help end self-abuse for good. If you cut, or if you have a loved one who is cutting, don't give up. Keep looking until you find the help you need and deserve.