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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Life + Arts

Scars of self-harm more than skin deep

“I felt helpless,” said biology senior Lynda Tran.* “I felt like my life and emotions were overwhelming, and I couldn’t control certain relationships or situations. I was dealing with rejection back then and took things too personally.”

Tran described a past emotional struggle where she resorted to self-harm. She said she started cutting as a way to vent her emotional frustrations.

A prevalent problem

According to Healthy Place, America’s mental health channel, 1 in 5 females and 1 in 7 males engage in self-injury each year. 90 percent of people who engage in self-harm begin during their pre-adolescent or teen years.

Self-harm, also known as self-injury or self-mutilation, occurs when someone intentionally and repeatedly harms themselves. The most well-known method is cutting, but other common behaviors include burning, scratching, carving or ripping skin, hair-pulling, intentionally starving oneself or drinking something harmful, like bleach or detergent.

UH Counseling and Psychological Services Clinical Director Christopher Scott said it is important to realize that self-harm is different from a suicidal attempt. Self-injury is often an emotion-regulation strategy and does not always have the motive of suicide.

“Self-harm is different from a suicide attempt and can range from very minor scratching to self-injury that requires emergency attention,” Scott said. “Many people who engage in self-harm are not in fact trying to end their lives or even cause serious injury.”

A way to cope

Tran, who began practicing self-harm in high school, said it was a coping mechanism that controlled her emotions. It was a way for her to gain strength and feel powerful when she was feeling emotionally weak.

“It was never to the extreme where I was suicidal, but cutting gave me a sense of power,” Tran said. “It’s hard for me to open up about it, even now, years later. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s not something someone should be ashamed of either. If you’re going through it, get help. Confide in someone you trust.”

She said opening up about her self-harm was the most difficult part.

“When my best friend found out, she started crying,” Tran said. “It hurt her to know what I was going through, and (she) couldn’t understand why I did it. My parents still don’t know about it to this day.”


If you or someone you know self-harms, you are not alone, and there are people who can and want to help.  |  Justin Tijerina/ The Cougar

Tran is not alone in her reluctance to come forth. Scott said self-harm behaviors are fairly common but not often talked about due to the stigma around mental health concerns.

“About one-third of the students who come to CAPS indicate that they have engaged in some form of self-harm in their lifetime,” Scott said.

When faced with someone who participates in self-harm, Scott suggests staying calm and avoiding judgment.

“These behaviors often indicate that a person is in a high degree of distress, and it is important to gently inquire about what is going on,” Scott said. “Try to avoid any judgment in your response that may convey that they are ‘blowing things out of proportion’ or that they are ‘defective,’ even if you find the self-harm behaviors distressing. Refer your friend or family member to resources where they can get help, like CAPS.”

Self-harm may start with the breakup of a relationship, as the result of a repressive home environment where feelings aren’t discussed, or even curiosity.

Psychiatrists believe that for many adolescents with emotional problems, self-injury has an effect similar to cocaine and other drugs that release endorphins to make one feel good.

Construction management senior Darcy Gomez once had a friend who cut themself. Gomez said she credits (social) media as influences to self-harm.

“As bad as it sounds, I think (social) media, like Tumblr, can sometimes glamorize self-harm,” Gomez said. “If you watch the British TV show ‘Skins,’ you see the characters have all this sex, take all these drugs or cut to numb themselves out from emotional pain. There’s this beautiful tragic-ness about it, this craving to feel connected or to save someone.”

One such Tumblr post on the topic of cutting reads:

“I just see red lines like lipstick.

more addictive than cocaine; This is dependence.

Stripped of pipes and filters I am captivated by straight strokes and sharp edges.”

Gomez said getting involved in a community or culture of self-harm will only worsen the situation.

“I do think it plays into the music they listen to, who they follow or which celebrities they idolize,” Gomez said.

“My friend used to listen to emo music and fell into that culture. Teenagers will see all these people on Tumblr cutting themselves and instead of trying to deal with their problems in a healthy manner, they become tempted to turn to self-harm as well. It only continues the cycle.”

With the variety of reasons to participate in self-harm, Scott said the behaviors can lead to serious injury and have negative long-term consequences — in spite of the seemingly positive short-term effects.

“In the long-term, these behaviors can create isolation, lower self-esteem and reduce healthier coping behaviors,” Scott said.

Tran agrees. She said staying quiet about it for so long was a mistake. Although she was initially fearful of her friends’ reactions, she said she’s glad she reached out for help.

“It was a struggle at first, but I knew I had to tell someone,” Tran said. “The act itself was probably a subconscious cry for help.”

In her process to heal, Tran said she kept her hands occupied by baking, playing guitar and going the gym a lot. Tran said she has her faith to thank for her recovery.

“I eventually found healing through Christ,” Tran said. “I don’t want to turn this into a religious story, but that’s what ultimately saved me. It gave me hope. I joined worship and found solace in singing. I thought of my younger sister and felt like I was being this horrible role model. I had to start holding myself accountable for my actions.”

For many, who may not have friends, family or faith to turn to for healing, there are various online support groups or psychiatric hospitals or clinics that provide psychological counseling.

Tran’s story ended on a happy note — she said she’s a completely different person and plans on never going back.

“If you meet me now, I’m this confident, happy, enthusiastic person,” Tran said. “I’m sarcastic and joke around a lot. You would have never guessed me as someone who used to cut herself. I have great relationships and learned not to hold things in; it’s not healthy. If I’m going through something, I’ll talk it out with someone I trust.”

Another thing Tran said she learned was to not care about what people think.

“I used to be so scared of people judging me,” Tran said. “Most may not understand, but if they truly care, they would at least try to and be there for me. I’m just glad it’s all over with. It’s my past. I’m done with it forever. Time really does heal.”

For information regarding warning signs and treatment, visit:

If you or someone you know is dealing with self-harm, here are some resources to get help:

*Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect identities

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