Julia Smarelli | Culture Staff Writer | firstname.lastname@example.org
Students open up about self-harm and help from OU’s Counseling and Psychological Services
I was about 12 or 13 when I cut myself for the first time. I remember that night well. I was in the middle of an emotional meltdown—these had been happening to me a lot in middle school—and I wanted to make it all stop. I was curious about self-harm and that night my impulse took over. There, alone in my bedroom, I cut my wrist for the first time. I was terrified by what I did, but I had stopped crying, numb to my emotions. Still, I swore to myself I would never do it again.
But that was a promise I failed to keep. I tried it again freshman year of high school. I was still horrified by what was gleaming on my arm, but I felt relieved after. At the time, I didn’t understand why I did it, but self-harm became something I kept coming back to. I couldn’t make sense of my depression; I felt like I had no reason to feel so sad all the time. Soon, I began to believe I deserved the pain on my wrist. But I never shared that with anyone, so those cuts on my arms became my dark, little secret. It wasn’t until my best friend pulled me aside at lunch to ask about the scratches on my wrist that I started tearing my thighs apart instead.
Self-harm was a strange thing for me. I would go through periods where I was fine, and I thought I had moved past it. But then there were months when I cut every day. During those times, it was like an addiction. It gave me something to feel other than my mental agony and the cuts were satisfying to me. I hated myself so much that I felt I deserved those scars. And seeing it made me think that I was doing something about the hatred. It was twisted, but it put my pain somewhere that made more sense. A cut hurts because it’s a physical and visible abrasion, which was easier for me to deal with than the emotional pain that I could not understand. I struggled like that for about five years before I reached out for help.
According to Crisis Text Line, self-harm “also known as deliberate self-harm, self-injury, self-mutilation, or more method-specific terms like cutting or burning, is the act of purposely causing physical harm to oneself.” Self-harm isn’t usually a suicide attempt and is classified as a nonsuicidal self-injury disorder (NSSID). Self-harm itself is not a mental illness, but many people who self-harm experience other mental disorders.
Everyone who struggles with self-harm struggles differently. No one’s “first time” is the same. No one has the same story. An alarming number of students have dealt with similar emotions. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 American adults experience a mental illness. Half of the mental illnesses occur by the age of 14 and three-quarters by 24.
Several students, some of whom wished to remain anonymous, spoke about their experiences with mental illness.
An anonymous sophomore said, “I first experimented with [self-harm] when I was in seventh grade when I was twelve years old.”
Another anonymous freshman shared, “When I did self-harmed, it was mostly in middle school, maybe a little bit before freshman year.”
But why do people cut? That is a simple question with a complicated answer. First, self-harm is not only cutting. It is any form of purposeful self-inflicted injury. This can include burning, punching, pulling out hair and inserting objects under the skin, among others. And there are numerous different reasons people self-harm. Sometimes it is a form of punishment. Other times self-harm gives a sense of relief. The physical pain is a different kind of pain than emotional pain. People who self-harm usually feel so negatively about themselves that they feel they deserve pain.
The American Psychological Association found in a study of self-harm that “experiencing pain validates their sense of being a bad or damaged person.”
Physical pain is often easier to handle than emotional pain and it often times turns into a habit. Self-harm is an addictive pain-killer, and individuals cut because they feel like have to.
“For me, it was often very impulsive. I didn’t know why I was doing it when I did it, it just kind of… happened,” said the anonymous freshman. “And I would often be crying and then I would do it and I would only cry more. I guess it’s what I felt I deserved at the time.”
Sophomore journalism major Prestin Minter said, “[Self-harm is] a coping mechanism that people use, from my understanding, to feel something. I know sometimes mental states can put you in a numbing mood, so the idea of feeling anything is something that people are drawn to.”
Factually speaking, however, there is not one definite cause. Justin Wheeler is a clinical social worker and therapist at the Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS). “What we know is that, for some, it’s a means to bring down emotions or regulate emotions,” said Wheeler. “A strategy for others is that it is a way to feel something if they’re feeling emotionally numb. For others, it does serve a self-punishing function.”
There is a lot of stigma around self-harm, partly because many people do not entirely understand the issue. Wheeler and the three students all talked about various misconceptions about self-harm; however, all four discussed the idea of attention-seeking. Self-harm is not often a means of getting attention, and it should not be brushed off as so.
Minter said, “I think a common misconception about people who self-harm is that they don’t care about themselves or that they are mentally unstable—that they are so broken. But the people I know who self-harm are the ones who want help the most.”
“One of the misconceptions is that people who self-harm are suicidal. That can be true, but that is not always true.” Wheeler said, “In general, there is a lot of stigma and judgment around it. If you’re someone that self-harms, you internalize some of that shame and stigma. You think ‘I can’t tell anyone about it.’”
But you can tell someone. Genuine and kind-hearted professionals are listening at CPS on the third floor of Hudson. CPS is a discounted, if not free, service for all students that provides prevention services, group and individual counseling, outreach programs, and consultations if someone is concerned about another. Their most unique feature, however, is the drop-in option. Students can go anytime from 9:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., Monday through Friday, for one session with a therapist. If you need to see someone, you can just walk in with no appointment necessary. This is also how you can get involved with counseling; simply go in for a drop-in session and you can discuss the therapy options.
Students shared their own experiences and opinions on CPS.
“I’ve had horrible experiences with Hudson in general, but CPS is so different. The people there are all very understanding,” the anonymous sophomore stated. “Whether it’s for drop-in or a regular therapy appointment, I feel so welcome there. I feel comfortable utilizing their services and I’m glad that information about CPS is so readily available.”
Minter said, “When I went in for my drop-in, it was really easy to sign up. It took a little while for them to get back to me, which was frustrating. But when they did, I got hooked up with my therapist, and she’s just been great. It’s a nice outlet.”
These counselors are fully aware of how you may be feeling. So, do not be afraid to reach out for help, no matter what you are going through. Even if you think your problems are not “bad enough,” your feelings are valid. There is no such thing as problems that are “bad enough.” It is hard to reach out, it is scary, but it is necessary.
Wheeler said, “We recognize fully that it’s a brave thing to come here. Coming and talking to someone that you’ve never met before about things that we don’t always share with others is hard. Know that we know how hard it is to come in here and do that and that we respect that.”
Therapists at CPS and everywhere are human too. They are not intimidating or judgmental. They are there to help you
“Do what is best for you,” advised the anonymous freshman. “Don’t be scared to make yourself a little uncomfortable if it means going towards improvement. Even if it’s just for a moment, even if it means just trying something new. You tried it, you did it; then you can know for a fact if it doesn’t work. And you don’t lose anything by trying.”
“Realize that support is out there,” the anonymous sophomore told me. “Realize that your feelings are not invalid. Don’t be afraid to utilize CPS… But also realize that your friends are not your therapists. If you need professional help, don’t be afraid to seek it. See it as empowering because admitting that you need help is probably one of the strongest things that you can do.”
Mental illness is so important to talk about because too many people have experienced it in one form or another. Self-harm is only one possible result. People who struggle with it are not crazy. And you are not alone. Help is out there.
Accept the help you need. Hold your head high because taking control of your mental health is one of the most admirable things you can do.
CPS: 740-593-1616 (line open after hours as well)
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: 741741
For additional information on CPS, please visit their website: