More teenage boys cutting themselves

From ‘Rising trend of self-harm among the young’, 28 Dec 15, article by Amelia Teng, ST

More teenagers are cutting themselves on their arms or legs in an attempt to cope with emotional stress or frustration. The trend of self-harming is also becoming apparent in younger children and in an increasing number of boys, according to new data from the Singapore Children’s Society. Fifty teens reported self-harming last year, up from 44 in 2013 and 36 a decade ago.

The proportion aged 14 and below was 66 per cent in 2013 and 60 per cent last year, compared to 56 per cent in 2005. Last year, 36 per cent of those who injured themselves were boys, up from 28 per cent in 2005.

…Dr Carol Balhetchet, senior director for youth services at the Singapore Children’s Society, said: “The generation today is under a lot more stress to achieve and do well – not just academically but in their social status, peer groups and family units.

“Boys are also subject to the emotional stress and they don’t just channel their energy into physical behaviour like in the past.”

She cited an example of a 12-year-old who cut himself because he did not fare as well as he had hoped for in his Primary School Leaving Examination last year.

The emotional release from the act formerly known as ‘self-mutilation‘ has been compared to a ‘runner’s high’ according to psychiatrist Daniel Fung in 2008. Other experts explain that boys traditionally vent their emotions through ‘sports, drinking or smoking’. So what does Dr Carol imply when our boys don’t ‘channel their energy’ into physical behaviour anymore? Do they live out their killing fantasies stuck at home playing Grand Theft Auto instead of going out into the great outdoors chopping wood, hunting rabbits or climbing trees?

Today, ‘cutting’ has been ‘acronymalised’ as NSSI, or non-suicidal self-injury, and includes other forms of violence such as scratching or burning. Defined as the direct, repetitive, intentional injury of one’s body tissue, without suicidal intent, that is not ‘socially accepted’, NSSI has earned itself an inclusion in the DSM-5, or the official diagnostic handbook on mental disorders. So not only do we have suicidal teens, but we have non-suicidal, self-slashing ones with mental illness as well.

What complicates matters is when some kids do it for fun and to copy their peers because it’s ‘cool’. In the mid noughties, we feared an epidemic of ’emo-influenced’ cutting. A group of 12 year old girls forged a blood pact by cutting themselves in the school toilet. Emo bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy and their black eyeliner continue to inspire fashionable melancholy in our teenagers. Today, the one making us cry in anguish is Adele. So perhaps not everything can be blamed on the PSLE. Sometimes it’s the fault of some goth fad that you hope teens eventually grow out of, when the scars on their wrists serve more as a reminder of the foolishness, rather than trophies, of their youth.

With a term as vague as ‘self-harm’, you’d need to list some exclusions. Tattoos and body-piercing, for example, cause extensive tissue damage, but isn’t a sign of madness (according to most people). Nail-biting and scab picking also do not fall under NSSI. If I’m a member of a satanic cult and I have to bite my finger and bleed into a bowl to make a sacrifice, it does not count either. I have this habit of biting or cracking my knuckles when I’m stressed, and poking fat zits and watching the pus ooze out gives me immense pleasure, but nobody’s going to admit me into IMH for self-harming. So technically, if I’m in need of some ‘release’ and get high jabbing the tip of my pinkie with the injector that diabetics use before testing their blood sugar, I would still be deemed as engaging in ‘self-harming’ behaviour because the NSSI doesn’t take into account how much actual pain I experience.

I’m not sure how the term evolved from self-mutilation to self-harm/injury. In early 20th century, ‘self-mutilation’ by cutting your own fingers off was a means of escaping conscription into the army. Or it could refer to you making an offering to a bloodthirsty deity. According to Google’s Ngram, the use of the term started picking up from the early 70’s, peaking just before the turn of the millennium, before dipping, presumably because it was making way for the less violent sounding ‘self-harm’.

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Worse, you could be ‘self-harming’ without actually realising it. Experts call this ‘indirect NSSI’, which entails being involved in abusive relationships, eating disorders, binge drinking and ‘risky or reckless behaviour’. For kids, it could be engaging in parkour and risk jumping to their deaths, deliberately provoking a violent parent and asking for a beating, or fooling around with strangers on the Internet.  In other words, ‘self-destructive’ behaviour.

I believe we all, at some point in our lives, have indulged in some self-destruction to varying degrees, otherwise we would not have lived. Who has not banged on a keyboard, kicked a piece of furniture or tried to impress someone by dashing across the road with a bunch of flowers? If these psychiatric experts had their way, almost anything we do may be a medicalised as a subconscious attempt to self-harm, directly or indirectly. Maybe, as Freddie Mercury of Queen put it, we’re all ‘one card short of a full deck’.

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