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Cutting is the act of intentionally inflicting harm on oneself. Cutting isn’t a suicide attempt, though it may look and seem that way. Cutting is a form of what is known as “self-injurious behavior” or “non-suicidal self-injury.” Other types of self-injury include scratching, burning, ripping or pulling skin or hair, self-bruising, and breaking bones. While cutting may occur on any part of the body, it is most common on the hands, wrists, stomach, and thighs. Tattoos and body piercing aren’t usually considered self-injury, however, unless they’re meant specifically to cause harm.

Self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional distress. Some people cut themselves when they feel overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or emotional numbness. Others do it to feel in control or relieve stress. A few see it as a way to “purify” their bodies. Girls tend to cut themselves more than boys do, although cutting can happen with anyone. It often begins between the ages of 12 and 15, but studies suggest 30-40% of college students who cut begin at 17 years or older.

Cutting is frequently linked to childhood abuse (especially sexual abuse), depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse problems. An estimated one-half to two-thirds of people who cut also have an eating disorder. And although cutting is rarely meant as a suicide attempt, it is not uncommon for people who cut to think about suicide.

Signs and Symptoms

Detecting self-injurious behavior can be difficult. Cutters are usually secretive, and will hurt themselves in places that are easy to hide with clothing. Or they may give excuses for their injuries, such as “the cat scratched me.” Over one-third of the respondents in a college study who reported cutting indicated that no one knew about the behavior. Here are some warning signs of cutting:

  • Unexplained burns, cuts, bruising, scars, healing or healed wounds, or similar markings on the skin—small, linear cuts are especially common
  • Implausible stories that may explain one, but not all, physical injuries
  • Consistently wearing long sleeves or pants, even when it’s hot outside
  • Constantly wearing wristbands, large watchbands, or large bracelets
  • Frequent bandages or other methods of covering wounds
  • Odd or unexplainable paraphernalia, such as razor blades or needles
  • Unwillingness to participate in activities that expose the body, such as swimming

Getting Help

It is important to realize that cutting is rooted in emotional distress; it’s a way for some people to cope with their emotions or outside stressors. Because cutting tends to become a compulsive behavior, it’s difficult for some people to stop even when they want to. As with other compulsions, professional help is often needed to stop the behavior. Treatment focuses on making people aware of the stressors that trigger cutting and on helping them learn better means of coping. Treatment can also get to the bottom of the problems that are really bothering the person, and help him or her express their feelings in a more positive way. If you or someone you know is cutting or engaging in other types of self-injury, contact your campus health center, especially if thoughts of suicide are present. Your campus health center can connect you with a therapist or group counseling. The health center can also provide the appropriate medical treatment if someone is injured from cutting.

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