Helping Those Who Hurt Themselves

Many commonly held notions about mental problems are wrong or at best incomplete. Such is the case with "self-injury." Most people think it is largely confined to troubled teenaged girls who are seeking attention, but as Houston Public Radio's Rod Rice reports, it often occurs in adults.

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"People as old as 60-65, both male and female, it's really remarkable but you'll see folks who have been self injuring for years."

Dr. Harrell Woodson is a psychologist at The Menninger Clinic in Houston. He says while self-injury can be a life long problem it can also manifest later in life.

"When I'm talking about self-injury I'm kind of distinguishing that from self-harm, which is a much broader term. Self-injury I'm really talking about is actually bodily injury, self-inflicted bodily injury, such as cutting, such as burning your self. It can also include ingesting corrosive chemicals."

Self-harm, he says, might be something like severe alcohol abuse. Dr. Woodson says self-injury is not always associated with a psychiatric diagnosis and is not a psychiatric diagnosis itself. It is seen as a symptom, which is why it is not often the focus of treatment. The Menninger Clinic is trying to change that view.

"We're trying to move more toward treating it and looking at it as something that we want to take seriously in and of its self."

Dr. Woodson says this behavior is difficult to change.

"Most of the people who come in are ambivalent about giving it up because the reality of it is; it has been working for them in once sense or in a way that helps them cope with themselves or their lives."

And, it can have serious, unintended, consequences.

"People have actually gone into shock, they didn't mean to cut as deeply as they did, they didn't mean to burn themselves where they did or as much s they did or they lost control of the situation. So that can happen where somebody can accidentally seriously injury themselves and, or, they can also kill themselves."

Dr. Woodson says focusing specifically on self-injury may at least help patients become less ambivalent about it and help them move toward a less maladaptive way of coping with the triggers to their self-injurious behavior.

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