Dr. Paul J. Dean Christian Blog and Commentary

Is Your Teenager a Cutter?


"Do you cut yourself with knives, razor blades, broken glass, needles, nails, paper clips, pins, scissors, tacks, anything you can get your hands on? Do you bang your head against walls? Punch walls till your hand goes all bruised and bloody? Do you throw yourself through panes of glass? Do you ever set your hair and/or skin on fire? Do you swallow batteries so they'll open up inside you, burning your organs with battery acid? Do you swallow broken glass, razor blades or needles? Do you ever hit your self with blunt objects? Do you punch yourself in the stomach, legs, head? Do you try to break your own bones? Expose your body to extreme weather conditions without wearing protective clothing so you'll get frostbite or sunburn or chills and fevers? Stare directly into the sun until it nearly blinds you? Do you pull out your hair? Bite or scratch yourself bloody? Do you ever feel extremely anxious and/or numb to the world for periods of time until you hurt your body to break out of it, to feel alive, to feel anything at all? Do you interfere with the healing of your wounds? Do you wear turtlenecks and long sleeves to hide the evidence?" These are the questions of a former cutter trying to help others gain freedom from a dangerous activity that is on the increase among teenagers in the United States.


Biblical counselors deal with the same types of things with which psychologists deal as the Scriptures are sufficient for whatever spiritual problem comes our way. Much of the time in our counseling ministry we deal with marriage problems, depression, or problems between parents and teens. Occasionally, an issue will come up that is out of the ordinary  in terms of the typical Christian experience of most persons in the pews, though such may be more common than we think. Such an issue came up last week as two of our staff counselors encountered a "cutter." In this article, we will highlight who cutters are, what precipitates cutting, signs of cutting, and what to do about cutting. We will also mention a few things that parents can do for prevention. In today's addition, we will deal with the first three highlights. We will deal with the last two highlights tomorrow.


In the first place, who or what is a cutter? A cutter is someone who engages in self-injury or self-mutilation. Rarely do we hear of persons who hurt themselves in this way, though perhaps as many as three million Americans do so on a regular basis. As a colleague told me recently, for the cutter, this activity is as much a part of their lives as alcohol is for the drunk. The activity may involve minor cuts that heal quickly or more serious wounds that leave permanent scars. While cutters may be found in every age or socio-economic group (even Princess Diana revealed that she was a cutter and that she had thrown herself down a flight of stairs on more than one occasion), most are females between the ages of thirteen and thirty.


Psychologists have provided a number of labels related to this practice. "Deliberate Self Harm Syndrome," "Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)," "Repetitive Self-Harm Syndrome," or "Multiple Personality/Dissociative Identity Disorders (MPD/DID)" are just a few. Those involved simply call themselves cutters or describe what they do as "SI," or "Self-injury." Using the designation verbally, cutters might say, "I SI twice a month."


In the second place, what precipitates cutting? Research indicates that cutting is most common among persons who have been molested or sexually abused as children including those who engaged in incest. Cutting usually begins in the early teen years and can be precipitated by a major change in the teen's life such as their parents divorce or the death of a loved one. A teen may feel rejected by someone important to him, he may feel inadequate, or he may be "wrong" about something. It may be that she was blamed for something over which she had no control. Feelings of fear, anger, rejection, hurt, or abandonment are associated with the practice.


Those who cut themselves indicate that they find it soothing in that they feel pain on the outside of their bodies as opposed to the inside. Some individuals report that cutting themselves in particular places actually causes one to feel good as emotional pain leaves the body. Some are simply trying to cope with overwhelming feelings, expressing anger toward themselves, or trying to feel real. Others are attempting to communicate with others. They are crying for help, trying to gain attention, or asking to be put in the hospital. Sometimes they simply want to be loved or feel cared for. Some are trying to make others feel guilty or drive certain persons away. Manipulation or running from responsibility are other dynamics that may be involved.


One former cutter who calls herself "Razor" said that "self-injury is a self-preservation technique for many cutters; the self-mutilation relieves anxiety and/or depersonalization symptoms which could lead to psychosis or suicide if not alleviated. Self-harm can be focusing, calming. It can give a person a feeling of control over their lives and their bodies which they have experienced no other way." While cutting is generally commenced or continued in response to stress or trauma, the dynamic becomes a way for individuals to deal with most everything that comes along. In other words, cutting becomes addictive. Many cutters say they hurt themselves in this way to avoid feeling numb or to facilitate a feeling of being alive. Many speak of the sense of control they gain over their own lives.


Cutters may be trying to gain control of their emotions. Yet, danger is involved. While many psychologists believe that cutters are not suicidal, studies show that cutters are more likely to commit suicide than those who are not cutters and a third of those who cut themselves expect to be dead in five years. The threat of suicide is increased over time as cutters must inflict more and more injury upon themselves to achieve the desired affect.

Obviously, cutting is an unbiblical response to negative feelings. Cutters are not sick or insane, nor do they suffer from a chemical imbalance in the brain. Most people, even those who are not Christians, learn to handle life's problems without resorting to such drastic measures, though alcohol and drug abuse would fall into that same category.


Psychologists offer a slew of coping mechanisms for cutters, including exercising, yoga, painting, or writing. Others who are involved in helping cutters recommend art, drawing x's by the hundreds, or playing music that is high energy such as punk, speed metal, or thrash. The idea is that feelings surface and are released from the body which would have only come out otherwise by cutting. Many simply recommend anything that will bring about "an endorphin rush." Obviously, the biblical counselor will want to offer a cure in Jesus Christ.


In the third place, what are the signs of cutting? Generally, most cutters will wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and turtlenecks even in warm weather to hide their lifestyle. At a young age, someone may do little things that hurt for no apparent reason to the outside observer. Of course, the child is experiencing feelings of sadness and perhaps more. Things may escalate a bit if this same child feels rejected at school and he may resort to hurting himself in other ways. If a series of traumatic events occurs and the child becomes emotionally over burdened, things may escalate dramatically.


One young lady told her story: "In elementary school, I used to get so stressed out about school and none of my friends being in the same school (I was a social reject in my school) I would come home and hit my head against the wall and stab myself with my pencil. When I was in sixth grade, my father died, and things got much worse. My mother was too depressed to really notice my depression, and the rest of my family never really noticed either. Emotions you wouldn't believe built up inside me as that same year my Grandmother died. Also, my two dogs died (one being only a puppy). The following year, two good family friends died of car accidents and cancer and my friend I had just met committed suicide. Things got even worse. My biggest mistake? I never cried and after a while, I wasn't able to cry. In seventh grade, I experimented with hanging myself, but used a cheap piece of string from my ceiling fan. Needless to say; it broke. Eighth grade, the cutting started. I started cutting my left wrist (the top, not the bottom, so people wouldn't get suspicious) with a Swiss army knife. One day, I cut too deep. I probably could have fit my index finger into the laceration. I was taken to the clinic in the worst blizzard in years by my mom (She is so great to me, I love her). The only thing that kept me from a mental hospital was that I lied and told them (and mom, who found out the real story later) that I had cut my wrist on the bathroom counter. You know what they said at the clinic? "Sharp Counter." Right. I didn't get stitches, but I did get a large bandage on my wrist for a while. I told the lie to everyone, and they believed it. After that, I found my knife had disappeared mysteriously from my drawer and so then I played with a pin, making boat designs and smiley faces on ...my arms. I played with death too, putting a belt on the rail in my closet and putting my neck through, letting myself get close enough to dying in that my heart pounded in my head and I heard voices. Finally, in ninth grade, I made the mistake of cutting myself with a razor and telling the school counselor what had happened. Well, my mom was told, and that was the end of that. She and I and my brother had a family meeting, and I have to stay clear of razors, etc. or else. I am in counseling once every two weeks now. I was on Prozac (I quit .. didn't help me much) but I am now trying to keep away from anything self-destructive." One can readily see the escalation and the danger. Getting biblical counsel is critical.


[Part Two Tomorrow - What to Do]


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