New national statistics on the prevalence and patterns of self-harm among youth is alarming, but not overly surprising says a local psychologist.
Data recently released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) shows there are an increasing number of girls being hospitalized for ‘cutting’ – using a sharp object to make small cuts to their body.
The rate has gone up 90 per cent in the past five years.
Among adolescent boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 17, almost 2,500 hospitalizations were for self-harm.
Self-harm or self-injury may lead to suicidal thoughts, but they are not synonymous, says Thomas Holmes, a registered psychologist who practices privately and with the Sturgeon School Division.
“The broad definition of self-injury is someone who is hurting themselves on purpose but doesn’t intend to end their life.”
Self-harm may involve cutting, burning, preventing wounds from healing or high-risk behaviour – alcohol and substance use, high-risk sexual activity, or picking fights/rough housing.
Data from CIHI indicates the majority of self-harm hospitalizations for both girls and boys were the result of intentional poisoning. Prescription medications were the most common substance used, but also include narcotics, illegal drugs, alcohol and chemical solvents.
With the exception of sexual assault, boys outnumbered girls as victims of intentional assault, making up almost two-thirds of the more than 500 hospitalizations among youth younger than 18.
Generally, girls tend to focus emotional pain inwards while boys focus outward, says Holmes.
Inflicting self-harm turns emotional pain – from loss, trauma, depression, anxiety, stress or relationship conflicts – into physical pain.
“It’s something far more tangible especially in a developing brain,” says Holmes.
Research has shown the human brain doesn’t stop developing until at least the mid-20s.
The frontal lobe of the brain, the control centre for personality and emotions, has yet to reach maturity in adolescence, explains Holmes.
“Executive function” and self-regulation skills, which enable us to plan, focus, put things into perspective and filter information, are still taking shape. Being able to understand our stressors and adapt to them is part of executive function.
“Sometimes our adolescents make really silly choices. We’d all love to say that it is about decision-making, but at the end of the day, that area of the brain is still developing.”
Self-inflicted physical pain results in the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters that inhibit the transmission of pain signals. The result is a state of euphoria.
Cutting thus becomes habitual and contagious, especially amongst teen girls.
“It may have provided a brief moment of reprieve, but it does not provide a long-lasting positive affect,” says Holmes, adding youth are left with feelings of guilt, anxiousness and depression. They may escalate to other high-risk behaviours after cutting.
The rise in hospitalizations for self-harm is a “symptom of this emotional turmoil that youth are moving through,” adds Holmes.
The onus is on adults to teach children and youth how to appropriately manage emotions and stress.
He advises parents to talk with their kids – don’t “catastrophize” the situation.
“Before we want to reason with our child, we want to relate to them first.”
Before you self-harm
Before you inflict injury on yourself – cut, burn or turn to risky behaviour – take 15 minutes and do something uplifting, says Holmes.
• Go for a walk
• Call a friend
• Go exercise
If you suspect self-harm
Approaching a friend who is dealing with emotional and mental health related issues can be difficult, notes Holmes.
Use the ‘Love Burger’ Approach:
Top bun – explain to the person you are concerned about that you care for them and support them.
Burger patty – "Let’s find you help – a parent or guidance counsellor."
Bottom bun – "I need you to be safe and I need you to be OK."