Does someone who cuts herself want to die?

Need-to-know information on cutting and self-harm

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photo credit: origami joel via photopin cc.

Perhaps you know someone who cuts herself and wonder if she really wants to die? The answer is that it depends.

The very act of cutting is not necessarily a suicidal gesture, however, those who engage in self-harmful gestures such as cutting may be struggling with suicidal thoughts. Additionally, self-injurious acts can be life threatening as they may accidentally go too far and result in unintentional suicide.

Why do people cut themselves?

People who cut themselves or injure themselves in other ways report a sense of relief after the act. Cutting, for them, is a way of mitigating deep emotional pain or distracting themselves from something they want to keep their mind off. It can help people express feelings that they are unable to articulate with words, and can help people feel alive when otherwise they report feeling numb. Cutting is a way of coping.

Interestingly, a 2003 study headed by Naomi Eisenberger indicates that the brain encodes physical pain and social emotional pain in the same regions, namely the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula. The fact that the brain handles emotional social pain and physical pain in the same area may make some sense of why someone might turn to physical pain to help cope with emotional pain.

Is it true that people who cut themselves only do it for attention?

While there are some people who might cut or act in certain ways that call out for attention, the vast majority of people who cut are doing so because it is the best way they know how to cope with deeply painful feelings.

Many people cut or engage in self-harmful behaviors actually do so in secret. People who cut often wrestle with a great deal of shame and therefore hide this behavior. People generally do not cut themselves for attention.

If people keep cutting a secret, how can I tell if someone is cutting?

If you suspect that a friend is cutting, the best way to find out is to ask them from a non-judgmental and caring place.

People can be scared of bringing up difficult issues such as cutting or suicide with people they are concerned about, but talking about it is one of the ways to help a suicidal friend or someone who cuts. Signs to look out for may include unexplained injuries or wounds, isolation, irritability, and other secretive behaviors. Someone who seems to be especially accident prone or wears long sleeves when the weather is warm may also be hiding the fact that they are injuring themselves while alone.

How can I help my friend who is cutting?

If you know someone who may be cutting or engaging in some other kind of self-injurious behavior, it might feel awkward to bring it up in conversation. If you do try to talk about it, your friend may deny that she or he cuts or refuse to speak about it. Even so, it is worth making the effort to talk about it.

It is important that you refrain from judging your friend or belittling what she or he is doing. Telling her or him to stop probably will not help either. It is important to understand why your friend is cutting, which likely has to do with coping with difficult emotions. You can offer your support and encourage your friend to talk about his or her problems.

The best thing is for your friend to get appropriate mental health treatment. You can encourage your friend to get help, and if it makes sense for you, you can offer assistance on how to find a psychotherapist. It is important that the psychotherapist has experience working with people who engage in self-harming behaviors.

Your friend who cuts hopefully does not wish to die but is coping in a way that is ineffective in the long run. Discussing this problem in the open is often the first step toward healing.

Sources

Eisenberger, N, Lieberman, M, Williams, K. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, vol. 302, pp. 218-226.

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