My column today is on a strange trend that I’ve been hearing about from concerned parents and child psychiatrists. It’s called “cutting.” If you’ve got kids, especially young girls, please give it a read. Here’s the intro:
Have you heard of “cutting”? If you’re a parent, you’d better read up. “Cutting” refers to self-mutilation — using knives, razor blades or even safety pins to deliberately harm one’s own body — and it’s spreading to a school near you.
Actresses Angelina Jolie and Christina Ricci did it. So did Courtney Love and the late Princess Diana. On the Internet, there are scores of websites (with titles such as “Blood Red,” “Razor Blade Kisses” and “The Cutting World”) featuring “famous self-injurers,” photos of teenagers’ self-inflicted wounds and descriptions of their techniques. The destructive practice has been depicted in films targeting young girls and teens (such as “Thirteen”). There is even a new genre of music — “emo” — associated with promoting the cutting culture.
In Britain, health care researchers estimate that one in 10 teenagers engages in addictive self injury. According to psychiatrist Gary Litovitz, medical director of Dominion Hospital in Falls Church, Va., the growing trend here in America has alarmed school guidance counselors around the country.
It’s not just delinquents and social misfits who are doing it…
Public health advocates are so worried about the fad spreading, especially among pre-teen and teen girls, that there’s even a “National Self Injury Awareness Day” coming up on March 1. If your kids’ schools aren’t on top of this, they should be.
Update: Getting tons of e-mail on this subject. One theme among critics is that cutting isn’t new. Readers recall an old friend here or there who nicked himself/herself with a razor blade 10, 15, or 20 years ago. So what’s the big fuss?
The fuss is that according to psychiatrists in the know like Dr. Litovitz, self injury has taken on an entirely unprecedented and far more widespread level of acceptability among young people than it ever has before. The Internet has a lot to do with it; so do the tacit endorsements of popular Hollywood celebrities. Am I saying that the Internet and Hollywood cause all young cutters to do what they’re doing? Um, no. But parents, medical professionals, and kids themselves are telling me that these factors have undoubtedly inspired many to take it up now who wouldn’t have otherwise.
A teenager from Texas writes:
I totally agree on everything you said about the cutting thing. I’m 14 and in middle school and I know people who cut themselves to show off like it’s some kind of fashion statement. Also there are so many websites, such as http://www.xanga.com, and if you look at certain sites that are for ‘icons’ they have a ton of pictures that are of cutting stuff! It’s sick and I think all th[ese] kids who are doing it are really influenced by the internet.
Reader Nancy B., an LCSW with an interesting take, writes:
I am a school counselor who just read your great commentary on cutting. You couldn’t be more correct- most of the cutters I see begin through copying others- particularly “stars” like Ricci. Hollywood never ceases to amaze me- they are always the primary contributors to the negative aspects of American culture- and then they turn around and rail against that which they have created.
Parents need to understand that trotting kids off to psychiatrists is probably one of the worst responses to cutting. I have been a clinical social worker for 18 years, and have had more than my share of kids diagnosed, put on a variety of drugs, and made into chronic mental patients. They need to talk with and LISTEN TO their daughters (about all things, not just cutting) rather than react to cutting as if the kids are severely mentally ill.
Another theme among many letter-writers and bloggers is that I’m an idiot because “emo” music is not new and has nothing to do with cutting. Reader Marjorie Snook writes:
I have never come across anything that would suggest a promotion of cutting. Your statement was patently ridiculous, and I can’t help but wonder who fed you such information. I am also surprised that you do so little research and fact-checking.
Yes, it’s true, emotional, woe-is-me music has been around a long time. But the kind of “emo” music embraced now by young people who cut themselves (Taking Back Sunday is one of the most popular cited; the Apathy Code, which depicts cutting on its album cover and in the lyrics to “No Alarms”) is new. And it is cited repeatedly on kids’ websites and blogs. Take a cursory look here.
Look, you can mock me for paying attention to this problem, but something very wrong is going on here–for whatever reason you want to believe–and parents have asked me to help get the word out. I hope it helps.
Update II: Kimberly Swygert at Number 2 Pencil weighs in. More from Illuminaria, Secure Liberty, and The Llama Butchers. A Small Victory is under the gravely mistaken impression that I’m engaging in the “trivialization of self-injury and cutting.” What?! Quite the opposite. It’s all my sneering critics–the ones writing that this is an “old” problem or that it’s not a problem at all since it helps cutters deal with their feelings–that are doing the trivializing.
More e-mail from readers with experience:
Harry Lynch writes:
I am a private school headmaster, and this has been a problem for a couple of years now. It has only gotten worse. We need to ask ourselves how we have been failing our kids.
My own belief: educators will talk to the kids about anything and everything, except God. It’s a truly bitter irony, that the one thing our kids need, we will not give them.
And Wendy Daly writes:
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As a psychotherapist on an inpatient psychiatric unit I am all too familiar w/”cutting” or self-injury. I must say that cutting or other forms of self-injury is generally symptomatic of borderline personality disorder. The “cutting” traits that are on the rise indicated by your article are not surprising. I would expect this trend to continue given the direction of our current culture.
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