It seems that the concept of self-mutilation is one that is practically impossible to describe, much less understand, to those unaffected personally. The media, including The Boston Globe (Foreman 2003) and Australia”s 7.30 Report (Bowden 2002) tend to choose the word “bizarre”, but to many, self-mutilation seems a justifiable and “normal” coping method.
Self-mutilation is not a suicidal or attention-seeking behavior (Foreman 2003), or a form of art or protest (King 1994), but a psychiatric disorder, often a response to childhood abuse, that is thought to cause a sense of relief by triggering a flood of endorphins or endogenous opiates in the body (Foreman 2003). The need to experience this feeling can cause self-mutilation to become an addiction similar to that of a drug addict (Bowden 2002).
Because the injuries of a self-mutilator tend not to be dangerous in a lethal sense (Taylor & Cameron 1998), and our society sees this as an inexplicable behavior (Bowden 2002), the predominantly female adolescent demographic that uses this as a coping method tends to hide the fact that they do so, making it impossible to estimate just how prevalent self-mutilation is (Foreman 2003).
In my opinion, an awareness and understanding of self-mutilation as a real issue in today’s society is essential to helping those who self-mutilate, and to stopping the frightening rise in this behavior that is occurring globally.
One important place where awareness needs to occur is within the medical setting. In Taylor and Cameron’s study on self-inflicted trauma at the Geelong Hospital in Victoria, Australia (1998), patients who self-mutilate regularly are identified as ‘a burden to medical and mental health services’, often resulting in medical and nursing staff having negative attitudes towards such patients. It frightened me that this study, despite being published in a scholarly journal, had difficulty in distinguishing between those who self-harm and those with suicidal intent, and Taylor and Cameron were well supported in suggesting that psychiatric treatment is often unrewarding to this ‘likely to be small’ group of patients anyway.
In two recent United States newspapers, though, reports on the findings and theories of several psychiatrists and psychotherapists have indicated that there are biological, psychological and social explanations for why people choose to self-mutilate and why it achieves the result they desire, and several treatments can prove successful if the act of self-mutilation is taken seriously by the medical profession (Foreman, 2003; LeCrone 2003). In Foreman and LeCrone’s articles, self-mutilation is more clearly described to a general public audience as a disorder comparable to anorexia or bulimia – conditions far more understood in society and more ‘acceptable’ to be spoken about. Unfortunately, such discussion of the realities of self-mutilation appear not to have occurred so much in newspapers and public media in most countries outside of the US.
In fact, in Australia, self-mutilation is a behavior that has only very recently begun to be brought up in any public manner, mainly through its use as a last resort for gaining attention in ‘artistic’ protest. It was reported on Radio National (2002) that performance artist Mike Parr used self-mutilation as ‘body art’, sewing up his mouth, eyelids, nose, ears and cheeks in order to send a strong message in support of refugees detained in Australian detention centers. In 1994, a scholarly art journal, Artlink, examined the powerful ‘performance art’ of Linda Sproul, who bruised and lacerated her body as performance art to actively protest violence against women (King 1994). This form of self-mutilation is obviously different in intent to that of young girls who do such things secretly, but public exposure of these protests, while possibly successful in drawing attention to issues worth protesting, certainly must not help in endorsing any understanding of self-mutilation as a true disorder.
Tracy Bowden did, however, attempt to raise awareness of the often unidentified and untreated disorder in her report on the repercussions of self-harm that was aired for the 7.30 Report in October 2002. While the piece was originally supported by visual images, I think the report came across a little confusingly. The two people that Bowden chose to interview as examples of people who self-mutilate were described as a convicted violent criminal and a ‘robotic character’ who used to work as a living mannequin at Expo in Brisbane (Bowden 2002); choices that I think could be rather misleading in representing the demographic most at risk of taking on this behavior.
Perhaps the most realistic and accurate way to get a true sense of the issue of self-mutilation is to look at the writing of those who have actually experienced it. The Mental Health Resources website includes several personal accounts in order to help create understanding and show self-mutilators that they are not alone. The writer of Tomorrow I’ll Be Better (Anonymous) uses similes to attempt to describe feelings that she did not know how to express, and shows us her state of mind through her self-contradicting mental reasoning and attempts to justify herself by challenging ideologies. Maybe it could be helpful for the medical profession to develop a more empathic viewpoint through the study of writings such as this in the course of their training, as has been done in some surgeons’ training using Richard Selzer’s The Knife (1995).
In regards to raising awareness within the general public to aid the suppression of the social stigma that is associated with self-mutilation, perhaps thirteen-year-old Nikki Reed’s semi-autobiographical film can also have a role to play. While the ‘off the rails’ teenaged girls in the film Thirteen are exaggerated characters, the confronting and controversial nature of the film can at least bring about some discussion of the real issues, including self-mutilation, facing today’s teenagers (McKenna 2003). The response to the film when it was first released tended to be one of shock, but as a 21-year-old myself, I identify more with Reed when she says she is surprised by this response, as this is simply what is going on around us and can seem ‘normal for today’ to many teens (McKenna 2003).
Confronting personal stories backed up with access to support have proven to be successful in swaying public perceptions for Australia’s Quit anti-tobacco and Alcohol: Go Easy campaigns, showing people that what may initially be an intentional personal choice can become an unconscious lifestyle that should be taken seriously. So far, attempts at studying self-mutilation in depth and presenting results in a generalized and structured way seem only to have complicated the issue even further. I really hope that a change will occur soon in the way society views self-mutilation and self-destructive behaviors, because for as long as it remains socially acceptable to self-harm by poisoning oneself with alcohol or tobacco and make statements through self-injurious performance art, yet considered bizarre, selfish and shameful to secretly hurt oneself in order to feel, I think the problem of self-mutilation will only grow.
- Anonymous, “Tomorrow I’ll be better”, Mental Health Resources, [online, accessed 29 October 2003]
- Bowden, T. 2002, “The repercussions of self-harm” (7.30 Report Transcript, 2 October 2002), [online, accessed 16 October 2003]
- Close the Concentration Camps. 23 December 2002, Sunday Morning, Radio National, Australia.
- Foreman, J. 2003, ‘Judy Foreman Health Sense; Cutters can stop the pain – with help’, The Boston Globe, Health Science Section, Tuesday May 6, p. B13.
- King, A. 1994, ‘Speaking the ineffable: new directions in performance art’, Artlink, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 59-61.
- LeCrone, H. 2003, ‘Self destructive behavior seen more in adolescents’, Cox News Service, Lifestyle Section, Tuesday October 21.
- McKenna, M. 2003, ‘Diary of a teenager in decline’, The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, Australia), Sunday September 7, p. 111.
- Selzer, R. 1995, ‘The Knife’, The Art of the Personal Essay, ed. P. Lopte, Anchor Books, New York, pp. 708-714, in The Informed Writer Readings, University of South Australia, Adelaide.
- Taylor, D. & Cameron, P. 1998, ‘Deliberate self-inflicted trauma: population demographics, the nature of injury and a comparison with patients who overdose’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 120-125.