A recent study found that two thirds of young people who self harm don't tell anyone 1. I have spoken with many people who have shared with me the absolute anguish and desperation that led to cutting or burning themselves, and yet despite the momentary 'relief', their emotional pain continued.
25% of people with eating disorders engage in self harming behaviour 2. I was so alarmed by this statistic that I included a chapter titled 'Scarred and Scared' in my book Why Can't I Look the Way I Want; Overcoming Eating Issues to help people understand and overcome self harm.
Now there is a computer program being researched by two Victoria University of Wellington researchers. Dr Tiong-Thye Goh and student assistant Yen-Pei Huang have created a system to scan social networking websites and identify key words posted by people aged between 18 and 24.
"Social networking sites have in recent years become an increasingly popular avenue for young people to express and to share their thoughts, views and emotions," Goh said. "When young people are emotionally distressed for instance, instead of the traditional channel of consulting friends, parents or specialists, social networking blogs may provide a channel to share and release their emotions and intentions."
The researchers developed technology that picked up key words and phrases such as "depressed" or "I don't want to live any more". The option of needing help would link to an appropriate website that provides useful information and links.
While this is a fantastic initiative, it is important to note that if you are feeling alone and isolated, there are strategies that will help avert the need to self harm. Creating a similar physical sensation can dissipate overwhelming feelings and emotions. Try squeezing ice cubes in your hand, thrusting your arm into a bucket of cold water, plunging your fingers into some ice-cream or snapping an elastic band against your wrist. Because these intense emotions are fleeting, creating a similar physical sensation will allow the feelings to pass - without leaving scars.
Coming to terms with the underlying causes of self harm is an important part of understanding what motivates this behaviour. Being honest about thoughts, feelings and behaviours with a therapist and establishing motivation is the first step to working through them and an important part of the recovery process.
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1 Children, Youth and Women's Health (2009)
2 Sansone, R.A., Levitt, J.L. and Sansone, R.A. (2003), 'Eating disorders and self-harm behaviour: A chaotic intersection', Eating Disorders Review, vol. 14, pp.1-3