Getting a Handle on Self-Harm

Whether this method of self-soothing is an epidemic of the social media age is still a matter of scientific debate. No surveys asking about self-harm were conducted before the mid-1980s, in part because few researchers thought to ask.

In the 1990s, the idea of self-injury and its underlying psychic misery began to enter popular culture. Princess Diana talked about it, in an interview; so did actors Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. The music video for Pink’s 2010 hit, F**kin Perfect, contained vivid scenes of cutting. By then, dozens of online forums were providing community, support and understanding to those who self-injured — and also, some experts say, often reinforcing the behavior, as a badge of membership in a special club.

“Nowadays a lot of younger girls especially are influenced by various media, where this whole self-harm thing is glamorized,” said Blue, who quit harming herself earlier this year. “I was hospitalized, and it was strange: A lot of other girls were impressed by my scars, like, ‘How did you get those? I’m jealous.’ It’s disturbing, this gratification — like, people who I guess feel good or happy when they do it.”

Among current American college students, a privileged group by definition, about 1 in 5 reports having inflicted self-harm on purpose to ease emotional pain at least once, according to surveys done at 10 universities by Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program for Self-Injury and Recovery. The first episode occurs around age 15, on average, Dr. Whitlock said, but a large number of people who self-harm started later, at age 17 or 18.

Few people who self-harm once stop there, said Dr. Whitlock, an author of “Healing Self-Injury: A Guide for Parents.” “About 3 in 4 continue, and the frequency tends to go up and down, as people go in and out of various stages,” she said. “It’s absolutely crazy-making for parents, because it’s hard to know what’s happening.”

This on-again, off-again pattern becomes, for about 20 percent of people who engage in it, a full-blown addiction, as powerful as an opiate habit. “Something about it was so grounding, and it was always there for me,” said Nancy Dupill, 32, who cut herself regularly for more than a decade before winding down the habit, in therapy; she now works as a peer specialist for adolescents in central Massachusetts. “I got to the point where I cut myself a lot, and when I came out of it, I couldn’t remember things that happened, like what set it off in the first place.”

People who become dependent on self-harm often come to treasure it as their one reliable comfort, therapists say. Images of blood, burns, cuts and scarring may become, paradoxically, consoling. In isolation, amid emotional turbulence, self-injury is a secret friend, one that can be summoned anytime, without permission or payment. “Unlike emotional or social pain, it’s possible to control physical pain” and its soothing effect, said Joseph Franklin, a psychologist at Florida State University.