JANIS WHITLOCK: How do you understand why people would find it really appealing to mutilate their body? That's an interesting question.
I think of myself as a developmentalist. I understand a lot about developmental psychology. But I particularly understand a lot about how human beings grow up in the world that they inhabit and how that affects our developmental trajectories.
Self-injury is bodily mutilation undertaken with the intention of alleviating internal distress, but usually not with the intention of committing suicide. Cutting, punching oneself, burning, ingesting caustic substances like Drano, rubbing glass or sharp objects under the skin, pulling skin off and exposing the underneath. There's a whole bunch of other stuff, but that's usually what comes up.
One of the first questions to come up is, how common is this? And how common is this among average kids? We found a 17% prevalence rate. 17%, that's high. That's a lot of people.
It seems to be out there. It seems to be happening within all sorts of populations and for all sorts of reasons. For the vast majority of people who start it and stay with it, it's about coping. It becomes a coping mechanism. And one piece of that is I really feel something when I feel nothing, and it's a real attempt to integrate and to feel.
Another piece of that is I'm just experiencing extraordinary distress right now. There's a well-agreed upon assumption that there's an endorphin effect. That the process of injuring or anticipating injuring releases endogenous opioids into the system.
So people will describe being in a state of extraordinarily high distress, injuring. And then being within a couple minutes, they just kind of breathe. And then they can go down and have dinner with their parents, or their roommates, or whatever, and be fine. So there is a physiological component to it. And so for the people it works for, it really works. It's a drug.
One of the studies we did was with-- was just looking at message boards. And we found hundreds and hundreds. And you can go into those message boards within two seconds and get an extraordinary amount of information.
We're working on a web-based intervention. And that's the direction that this field has to go, because that is the question. All right, so we have it. We know about it. What do we do about it?
How do we help figure out who's at risk, who's at risk for what? Who's just doing it because it's something to do? Who's doing it and could up committing suicide in a few years?
So it is a harbinger of distress. And it's a gift in that way. It's a gift to be able to see so clearly somebody struggling early. Because if we can find people early, then maybe we can do something.
I don't think we've had such clear markers as we have now. I mean, a lot of our young people are giving us really clear signs that they're not well. And we can choose to ignore it as something that's attention seeking, or we can choose to really pay attention to it and hope to save a life down the road.
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Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults, discusses the disturbing phenomenon of self injury; what it is, why people do it and why studying it is so important.