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Rainbow House to educate parents on adolescent self-harming

Tuesday, April 26, 2011 | 8:47 p.m. CDT; updated 5:44 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 27, 2011

COLUMBIA — More than 20 percent of adolescents have reported self-cutting at some time during their lives, according to lifespan.org.

While this may be a one-time experiment for some youths, it can be a symptom of deeper emotional problems for others, said Dana Harris, Oakland Junior High School outreach counselor. When dealing with self-harm, the goal should be to determine these underlying problems, she said. 

Self-harm, or self-injury, is a broad term, and the practice comes in many different forms, including cutting, scratching, burning, mutilating, piercing and hitting oneself, Harris said. Adolescents use tacks, paper clips, razor blades, sewing needles or any other sharp object to cut, scratch or pierce, she said.

Harris often used to see kids using erasers to burn their skin, but she said adolescents are now finding more sophisticated ways to harm themselves.

The act of branding is a popular trend Harris is beginning to see. This involves adolescents heating metal objects and applying them to their skin to create a "tattoo." Harris said she sees it as more of a form of self-mutilation rather than self-injury. 

Cutting is the most commonly-known form of self-harm, and Harris said this might be because society has glamorized it, and it is seen as a trend. There is more information available on cutting, so kids might be more likely to experiment with it, she said. 

Harris stressed that cutting has been a form of self-harm for a long time, but it comes in cycles, and she is seeing it gain popularity among adolescents again. 

Despite it being seen as a trend and a way for some to fit in, cutting, for most adolescents, is "a symptom of the real problem that's going on," Harris said. 

Harris said most people would look at an adolescent who is self-harming and ask why he or she would do that, but there are underlying emotional issues to understand. 

Some adolescents use self-harm as a way to deal with emotional pain or to feel as if they can gain control of a problem. Harris said endorphins — a type of chemical used to transmit signals in the brain — released during self-harm alter the pain an adolescent might be experiencing. 

Understanding how to deal with an adolescent who is engaging in self-harm is a major step to solving the problem, and Harris said most parents lack this knowledge.

Harris, along with Kathryn Oberg-Roberts, primary therapist at Missouri Psychiatric Hospital, will be educating the public on self-harm and self-injury among adolescents at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Columbia Public Library Friends Room. The forum, hosted by Rainbow House, is in coordination with Child Abuse Prevention Month. 

Harris said she wants to educate parents on what to do if their child is self-harming.

"We want them to know they haven't done anything wrong as a parent," Harris said. "We don't want them to put the blame on themselves." 

Parents need to normalize the situation, keep open lines of communication, listen, ask questions and not shame the adolescent. Shaming the child only makes the issue worse, and he or she is more likely to keep secrets, Harris said. 

Andrea Shaw, Child Advocacy Center clinical coordinator at Rainbow House, said parents and social workers asked for a forum on self-harm to gain more information. 

Brenda Jackman, Rainbow House marketing director, said she wants the forum to be a resource for parents and workers in the field who might not know how to deal with adolescent self-harm. 

"People know that it's out there, but people don't know how to address it, or what's all involved with it," Shaw said.


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