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August 1, 2014

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‘It’s not a joke, it’s not a fad’: Understanding Self-Injury Awareness Month

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Kahea Sauiluma

Life coach and author Carrie Leigh Sandoval.

March is Self-Injury Awareness Month, a grassroots event focused on bringing attention to self-harm and self-injury and combating stereotypes surrounding the condition.

According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics, an average of 1 in every 5 people has engaged in some form of non-suicidal self-injury, including but not limited to cutting, burning, hair pulling and punching.

Among the Valley’s most outspoken advocates of self-injury awareness is author, mentor and certified life coach Carrie Leigh Sandoval, who draws on her own struggles with self-injury as a teen to provide coaching, mentorship and workshops for teens, their parents and mental health professionals affected by the often under-treated condition.

Her book “Journals Have Feelings Too” offers tools and guidance to coping with self-injury through the practice of journaling.

I spoke with Sandoval about recognizing self-injury, its misconceptions and how to support those it affects.

What is the goal of Self-Injury Awareness Month?

The most important thing to understand is that self-injury is not a joke, it’s not a fad. It is a cry for help, but it’s not about kids seeking attention. They’re not just doing it for attention. It’s a serious issue that’s happening right now, and it needs to be taken seriously.

During this month, what can people be doing to cast more light on the issue and become more aware of its effect?

I would say don’t judge. It’s the same thing as with mental illness and mental health issues, to be compassionate toward people who are going through this. It affects youth, but those aren’t the only people being affected by it. It’s everywhere. The most common is age 14, and it’s usually girls. But that’s another myth — that it’s only girls. There are a lot of boys who are doing it, too.

Why does it seem to disproportionately affect that age group?

It’s a time of increased pressure and trying to learn who they are. Everything just seems to come out during that time, anything that’s been suppressed comes to surface. The reason that many young people are doing this is because they feel so much that they can’t regulate their emotions, so this is a way for them to externalize what’s happening inside.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about self-injury?

The first one is that it’s for attention. They other one is that they can control it. A lot of people think that you can just stop. But it becomes an addiction just like anything else because it’s the go-to thing, it’s the only thing that these kids can use to feel any sort of relief. The different forms include cutting, burning, hair pulling — those are the most common.

Your work with self-injury draws on your own experiences with it. How did you break the cycle, and how does something like journaling fit into that?

It started with a decision to stop. I had to realize that this wasn’t healthy. Literally, it was just a decision — “I have decided that I am going to stop.” And I didn’t know where to go from there. I was doing drugs, too, so it went right along with that. But what I learned was that through journaling, I was able to find a place to express my feelings, where I couldn’t speak them, so I wrote them. That’s what I encourage other people to do.

Why is journaling an effective way to treat self-injury? What tools are in your book?

The book is for anyone who wants to get started journaling as a way of coping. A lot of therapists encourage their clients to journal, and I do as well because, like I said, it allows you to go within and find out what is really going on inside of you. We’re so distracted, and we often have no idea what’s happening, and then it becomes so overwhelming that we have to turn to something like cutting or drugs. Something to just feel. So the book includes prompts, questions that encourage that sort of self-exploration.

I’ve co-authored another book and am working on a third about bullying that will be out at the end of the year. Bullying is actually statistically linked to self-harm and suicide — it’s that feeling of not feeling worthy.

What resources are available locally for someone interested in getting help?

The first place that kids are usually sent to is the school counselor, and then the school counselor usually sends them to one of the treatment centers like Montevista Hospital or an inpatient program like Spring Mountain Treatment Center. But once they get out, they have a therapist. It’s just about finding someone who they can trust and who they feel comfortable talking to. The support group that I started is there for additional support and coaching as they’re getting through this. And that’s for teenagers, parents, I’ve even worked with therapists and counselors and helped them because it really is something that they don’t understand.

If you suspect a friend or loved one is self-injuring, what’s the best way to support that person and reach out to help?

The first thing is to just let them know that you’re there. That they’re OK. That there’s nothing wrong with them, and they’re not broken. They’re just having a pretty sane response to insane circumstances. Don’t say “stop it.” Don’t ask why. It’s so important to validate their feelings because a lot of times they’ll hear, “Oh, you’re stupid, stop doing that, why are you doing that to yourself?” It’s about acknowledging their feelings.

I actually have a whole list of things to say and not to say to someone who’s going through it on my website. Helping them identify what their triggers are is also in there, so they know what’s going on before they make that decision to cut or self-injure in any way, so that next time they feel that way, they are able to recognize it and choose something different. That’s all it is — it’s not about making the thoughts or feelings go away, but knowing what to do when they come up.

What are the signs to look for if you think someone you know might be self-injuring?

Wearing long sleeves when it’s hot outside. Acting distant and isolating and pulling away. If you notice razor blades or anything similar missing. A lot of the time, panic attacks and anxiety attacks go hand-in-hand with it because it’s a way to feel that relief. So if they’re already prone to things like that and if addiction runs in the family, it could be a problem.

If you or someone you know is struggling with self-injury, visit Sandoval’s website to learn more about support, resources and treatment, including her own self-injury support group. She also recommends the following emergency hotlines:

National Self-Injury Helpline: 1-800-DONT-CUT (366-8288)

24-Hour Crisis Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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