The tattoo on Cait’s arm is glorious. A deep red bouquet of beautiful orchids, needled to such perfection that the flowers almost seem brilliantly alive. Many stop her on her way to compliment her body art, and she proudly shows it off. This is very different from when she would buy shirts based on the length of their sleeves to hide this very arm. This arm carried a visible collection of scars of self-harm. The beautiful tattoo now covers an ugly past that remained like a stubbornly open book on her arm. Cait hasn’t hurt herself in almost six years, but the persistent scars are a constant reminder to what she has overcome and what she calls her most discomforting times.
Cait first started self-harming as a child by pulling her hair out during instances of stress and fury. When she couldn’t calm herself like this anymore, she spiraled to scratching herself, and then at 11 she began cutting herself.
“I think the real root of the problem was that I was never taught how to deal with emotions, given any coping mechanisms,” Cait said.
Coloring wounds of past
An Australian woman recently garnered much attention and praise on social media. Whitney Develle began making the widely popular and stirring offer of free tattoos to cover scars of self-harm by posting a photo online of a tattoo she’d drawn on top of her friend’s scars.
“She told me how much pain it brought her when people would question her about them or make comments,” Develle said. “No one should ever have to feel like a public museum for people to ridicule.”
Inspired by the experience, Develle summoned all those wanting assistance covering their scars. She thinks that it’s unfortunate that society looks down upon at people with self-harm scars. “I want to change that stigma,” she said.
“I want them to know that they no longer have to feel ashamed and that they no longer have to conceal their scars,” Develle continued. “They can receive some closure and find confidence again.”
What is self-harm?
Self-harm or self-injury is the intentional and repeated action of hurting oneself. A frequent routine is cutting, while some people experience urges to burn themselves, pull out hair or pick at wounds to avert healing. Extreme injuries may also result in broken bones.
According to a study from the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, around 1 to 4 percent of American adults and 15 percent of teens are perceived to have harmed themselves in some way.
Such behavioral tendencies are an indication of emotional distress. Emotions may develop in intensity if a person continues to self-harm as means of a coping mechanism. What follows as an eventual result are usually feelings of shame. The scars can be permanent and become a constant reminder of pain and guilt. If the shame cultivates further intense negative feelings, the person may be at risk of hurting himself or herself again, resulting in a vicious cycle and a long-time habit.
Consuming alcohol or drugs during self-harm further raises the susceptibility of more severe injuries than intended. Not to mention, it takes time and energy away from other important things like school, work and relationships.
Self-harm is not essentially a mental illness. The behavior indicates a lack of coping skills and is often seen associated with several illnesses, the tendencies, including borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety or posttraumatic distress disorder.
Individuals most susceptible are those who experienced trauma, abandonment or abuse. The urge to self-harm may initiate from overpowering anger, annoyance or pain. Sometimes, injuring oneself stimulates the body’s endorphins or pain-killing hormones, thus raising their mood.
Through self-injury, the person may be trying to:
Manage or reduce severe and incomprehensible distress or anxiety
Distract from painful emotions
Feel a sense of control over the body, emotions or life situations
Feel something “real” to overcome emotional numbness
Communicate internal feelings
Indicate depression or distress
Punish themselves for self-professed faults
Even though self-harm isn’t the same as attempted suicide, it is an indication of emotional pain that should be considered seriously. If someone is engaging in self-harm, he or she may be at an increased risk of feeling suicidal. It’s crucial to find treatment for any underlying emotions.
An ironic choice
Even though tattoos pave an avenue to salvage self-harm scars, the irony of such a choice is often debated upon. Similar to self-harm scars, there is a stigma associated with tattoos as well. Many argue that tattoos are a form of self-harm in and of themselves. Tattooing causes pain and injury, extracting the same rush of endorphins identical to that from self-harm.
“You are basically relying on your body’s own chemical-producing capacity to generate a set of drugs that change your consciousness,” said Janis Whitlock, a research scientist from Cornell and studies self-harm. She termed it as a process addiction much like pornography or gambling.
However, when it comes to the mental health effects of tattoos, it all comes down to the motivation and intention behind getting them.
Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health treatment provider, devoted to evidence-based treatment for substance abuse disorders and mental illnesses. We aim to see our patients not just succeed in treatment but thrive in their daily lives as well. If you or a loved one is currently struggling to regain control of your life and re indulging in self-harm, there are underlying emotions that need to be acknowledged and treated. Reach us immediately because help is just a phone call away.
About the author
Sana Ahmed is a staff writer for Sovereign Health Group. A journalist and social media savvy content developer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana has previously worked as an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster. She writes to share the amazing developments from the mental health world and unsuccessfully attempts to diagnose her friends and family. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.