Teens in Crisis: Cutting on the Rise

Who's Doing it?

Says Jayney Goddard, president of the Complementary Medical Association in the U.K.: "People deliberately hurt themselves for a variety of reasons and they may sometimes feel isolated and ashamed of their actions.

"Often self-harm is a way of gaining relief from overwhelming emotions and sometimes the person feels a great sense of release after they have hurt themselves," she adds.

Indeed, it's not unusual for cutters to report that the act of cutting makes them feel "alive," says Levander. "The truth is it makes them feel something and none of us are human beings being cut off from humans too long.

"It's almost difficult for anybody, and even me, to wrap my brain around the concept of purposely using a razor blade on my skin to feel better; it's hard to conceptualize how that would be helpful," Levander adds. "In my experience, I don't think that self-injury makes people feel better, I think that an act of self-injury makes people feel not so bad."

Different Forms of Abuse

Self-harm takes many forms. Eating disorders like anorexia, hair-pulling and burning are some of the conditions that co-exist with cutting. All, say health-care professionals, are ways of gaining control over the body.

The statistics look like this: cutting, 72 percent; self-hitting, 30 percent; hair-pulling, 22 percent; bone breaking, 10 percent and burning, 5 percent.

The majority of self-injurers are women. A 1986 survey compiled this "portrait" of a typical self-injurer: She's in her mid-20s to early 30s and has been hurting herself since her teens. She tends to be middle- or upper-middle class, intelligent, well educated and has a background of physical and/or sexual abuse, or is from a home with at least one alcoholic parent.

Why So Many Women?

Experts believe it's because women internalize anger while men externalize it. It's also possible that because men are socialized to repress emotion, they may have less trouble keeping things inside when overwhelmed by emotion.

In one study of self-injurers, women were likely to be diagnosed as suffering from "transient situational disturbance" while men were more likely to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

What's more, the study found that men who self-injure are taken more seriously by physicians than are women.