The recent reports of young star Demi Lovato’s admission to a treatment center, reportedly for cutting, has drawn new attention to this dangerous practice.

“Cutting”, also called self-mutilation or self-abuse, appears to be on the rise amongst teens. In fact, one study found that nearly 17 percent of teens surveyed reported causing deliberate self-harm. Even though it is most commonly seen among adolescent girls, people of any age and any sex can be afflicted with a desire to harm themselves.

Individuals who cut themselves, burn themselves, scratch to the point of drawing blood, pull out their own hair and otherwise seek to cause harm to themselves, are believed to do so in order to cope with strong, and often painful emotions.

Many health professionals agree that people who hurt themselves are crying out for help and don’t know how else to do it other than to cause themselves harm. This allows the person to cry out for help without saying a word, because asking for help may be too difficult for them. Individuals who identify themselves as “cutters” report feeling a strong emotional release from the pain they experience, one that eases their tensions and helps them cope with whatever they feel they have to cope with.

Cutting can be habit forming and, in some cases, contagious. It can become a compulsive behavior, as the more one does it, the more he or she feels the need to do it more. When a child begins to identify emotional release from self harm as a pleasurable experience, they are more likely to slowly adopt self harm as a way to deal with more and more of their emotions. If these habits are viewed by younger siblings or impressionable friends, the practice can spread relatively quickly, especially if the impressionable youth is made to truly believe that self-inflicted harm would actually feel pleasant. The cutter may think they are experiencing something pleasant, but that’s because their body has released endorphins. Endorphins are produced in the brain and released into the blood as a response to pain, danger and stress. These endorphins produce analgesia and a feeling of well being, helping the child cover the actual emotions they feel. Unfortunately, like most addictive behaviors, the child’s addiction to inflicting self-harm can escalate, requiring them to hurt themselves more and more in order to reach the desired level of pleasure.

Cutting, or the desire to inflict self harm, is one that can affect children of any social class, even kids who would appear to have everything. While cutting and other forms of self-inflicted harm are not considered suicidal behaviors, they are still behaviors that can cause great physiological harm, and children who are hurting themselves should be offered assistance in the form of counselors as soon as possible.

If parents suspect that their child is cutting or causing harm to themselves, they shouldn’t be afraid of addressing the issue directly. This should be done in a private, caring, and non-confrontational environment. The parent should explain why they think their child may be hurting themselves and why they have concerns. The parent can ask the child to show them their arms and legs if covered by long sleeves/pants. Cutters and others who leave marks or scars on their arms and legs will often be seen in long sleeves and pants, even when it would seem inappropriate for the environment.

If scars/marks are present, the child should be evaluated by their pediatrician and referred to a counselor who can help the child and the family get past the cutting.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Marshall J. Littman is a San Diego Pediatrician who has been in practice for 35 years. He is also a member of Children's Physicians Medical Group.