It's an emerging concern on college campuses across the nation. It's a deliberate and repetitive act that may be found in individuals who struggle with self esteem issues or who find it difficult to express their thoughts and feelings to others. And the behavior can manifest itself in anyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socio economic status.
The behavior is self mutilation, also known as self harm or “cutting.” At Virginia Tech, counselors at the Cook Counseling Center and other professional staff in the Division of Student Affairs are learning more about the factors involved with the behavior so that no student has to face self-harm alone.
Christopher Flynn, director of the Cook Counseling Center, found that reports of self mutilation have increased at universities across the country. In response, he asked Tevye Zukor and Carly Rohde, staff members at the Cook Counseling Center, to brief the professional staff in student affairs regarding the causes and interventions of self mutilation.
“Self mutilation is a deliberate, impulsive, non-lethal harming of ones self,” said Zukor. “It can cause damage to the skin or leave red marks lasting for an extended period of time. One can carry out this behavior through a variety of methods, including cutting, scratching, burning, or bruising, and is typically seen on the arms or thighs. It is usually not an attempt to commit suicide, but it could tragically lead to an unintentional death if the method of harming becomes excessive.”
According to Zukor, individuals who self-mutilate report that they feel a sense of emptiness inside, aren’t stimulated enough, are unable to express their feelings, are lonely, or aren’t understood by others.
“Some individuals self-harm as a form of self-punishment, while others say self-harm allows them to experience emotional pain as physical pain, which often seems more manageable for the individual,” says Zukor. “For the majority of students who self-injure, the self-injurious behaviors tend to serve as a coping mechanism for dealing with seemingly overwhelming emotions and experiences. Typically, self-harm occurs after a student has been unable to formulate or consider other healthier, more adaptive coping strategies for dealing with the difficulties life can present.”
Rohde said indications that someone might be self-harming include unexplained and frequent injury, wearing long sleeves and/or pants in warm weather, low self-esteem, problems handling emotions, and changes in normal functioning. But, she warns, these signs are not absolute and should weighed carefully.
“Jumping to conclusions and accusing a student of engaging in self-injurious behavior is typically not a good idea.”
The key to successfully dealing with this issue, says Rohde, is to become more educated about it.
“Should you find that you know someone to be engaging in self-injurious behavior, be supportive without further encouraging the behavior,” said Rohde. “Be available to talk to the person, and make the initial approach to offer a student the help that they need, whether it’s making them an appointment to see a counselor or taking them to their appointment to ensure they attend.”
Staff at the Cook Counseling Center are available to offer consults with students, administrators, professors, and parents that may be facing the difficult task of talking to a self-injurious individual. The center provides individual counseling and group counseling for enrolled undergraduate and graduate students. Consultation and outreach services are provided for faculty, staff, and student organizations.
“Helping individuals onto a path of learning to address and manage their self-injurious behavior is our goal, and maybe even saving them from the dangerous and sometimes fatal consequences of self-harming,” said director Flynn. “The key is to seek help, and we’re available to provide that support to the Virginia Tech community.”
The Cook Counseling Center expert counselors are available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Students may stop by the center located on Washington Street or call 540-231-6557. In an emergency situation, counselors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling 540-231-6444.