Black Girls Are Cutting Themselves as a Cry for Help, But No One’s Listening

Mom Moment 52

CuttingA few months ago, I mentioned in passing that my daughter has been cutting herself. It’s an issue we’ve been dealing with for what seems like forever, but I haven’t really been comfortable talking about it, much less sharing our story because for one, there hasn’t been some miraculous, this-is-the-cure resolution, and secondly, it’s so deeply hurtful that I, as her mama, couldn’t figure out how to fix it or even prevent it in the first place.

A reader criticized me in the comments for outing my kid’s cutting and it made me scuttle backwards and clam up again. But because there may be other families out there struggling with the same heartbreaking problem—particularly in the black community, where no one talks about mental health issues, much less specific problems like this—I’m out again. And I hope, as Skylar gets older, she uses her story to help others dealing with the issue, as well. 

Sometime last year, during the course of a seemingly normal evening, I spotted an oozing gash across my daughter’s forearm. The wound was fresh, bright red, and fairly deep. I pulled her to me for a closer examination and asked her what happened to her arm. She waved away my concern in the nonchalant way that 12-year-olds do when they don’t feel like being bothered and said she scratched it on a nail on a classroom bulletin board. I knew that was a lie.

More from The Stir: If Teen Cutting Scared You, This New Trend Will Really Freak You Out

The truth always has a way of coming out and eventually I learned she was cutting regularly. The discovery sent me into a panic. What did it mean? Was she suicidal? Even if she wasn’t, could she accidentally dig too deeply and slice a vein? It sounds so dramatic, but visions of waking up in the morning to find her in a pool of blood made me sick with worry.

I didn’t want anyone to write her off as a troubled child or a razor-wielding psycho. But she was cutting herself to vent her hurt, anger, feelings of inadequacy, awkwardness, and despair. The normal angst of puberty was exacerbated by a tenuous relationship with her father and drama with friends and classmates who seemed to have the most tumultuous, fine-one-day, chaotic-the-next relationships I’d ever seen, even among tweenagers. I’m sure I contributed to her frustration, too. To release the emotions she couldn’t verbally express, she cut her arm and eventually, her belly and thigh, too.

A study in the British Journal of Psychiatry revealed that young black women are more likely than girls of any other race to self-harm, but the least likely to receive psychological treatment for it. And, even more surprisingly, black boys are the most likely to injure themselves. But getting help for our children is a minefield of challenges. There are financial constraints: mental health services are complicated by insurance logistics and out-of-pocket expenses. Plus, mental health care is still roundly stigmatized in the black community. And like eating disorders, self-injury was chalked up in the “things black people don’t do” department, as demonstrated by the utter shock of family and friends.

Those factors, together with the difficulty of finding a counselor who would even bother returning my calls, even in my urgency, have made for a frustrating experience on so many levels.

Not knowing exactly what triggers my daughter’s desire to cut has been frightening, to the point of being scared to discipline her for fear any kind of punishment will send her into a tailspin. On bad days, when she would come home from school upset or get scolded for something, I’d move her into my room at bedtime and trail her to the bathroom to keep her from cutting. I’ve herded the household scissors into a hiding place, but when the scissors were gone, she used paper clips. When the paper clips were snatched, she used earring posts. There’s an infinite supply of sharp-edged objects to inflict harm on the person who’s determined to self-mutilate.

Her cutting has waned over the last few months, but there are times when looking at her scars makes me want to break out into sobs. The psychiatrist we found diagnosed her with mild depression. But, she is holding off on medication in favor of regular sessions to try instilling the coping skills that will hopefully replace the urge to take her emotions out on her body.

Skylar is a beautiful girl, but she wears some pretty deep war wounds. For a long time, she wouldn’t be caught in short sleeves because she was embarrassed of her arm. Sometimes I’ll catch people looking at it. Eventually, I’ll look into a procedure to remove the scars. For now, I’m more concerned about healing the pain she takes out on her body in the first place.

Have you or anyone in your immediate circle ever struggled with self-injury?

Image via JD Hancock/Flickr

behavior, drugs & alcohol, family, friends, girls, high school, kid health, middle school, safety, teens, tweens


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daddysgf daddysgf

My mother faced the same struggles with my younger sister as you do, and still has issues with it to this day as my sister has become a young adult. It is difficult for me, as the other sibling, to deal with and if you have other children, please make sure they are not pushed to the wayside and that your beautiful daughter doesn't get away with more simply because of her fragility... it was a crucial mistake my mother admits she made.

Laura Desaulniers Lewis

When I was a teenager I used to cut. While I did end up seeing a therapist, there was no one moment that cured me. It took time to grow out of the tortured state of being a teen. 

The most you can do is to let her know you are there for her, in a non-judgemental way. That you are willing to just listen to what she has to say.

Tonya Motes Pralat

ALOT of kids are cutting themselves! Not just Black girls or White or Hispanic girls. Boys of all colors are doing it too. I went through this type of thing as a teenager. It sucks feeling that alone. Technology has made it even worse. My daughter who has never cut but for some reason has a real love for spreading the word, turned me onto a group called TWLOHA or To Write Love on Her Arms. They have a website and you can buy tshirts and car stickers and other things. It's neat because people ask us about what it means and we can share.

the4m... the4mutts

I cut myself from ages 12-27. While its a serious matter, its not one that's "curable" anyway. Like ^^ Lura said, there is no "cured" moment. It becomes a lifetime struggle. Stop trying to control it. You'll only make it worse. You will never stop her from cutting. Onl she can do that. And if you keep trying to keep her holed up in the bedroom with you, and taking away sharp things, she will hate you.

And stop playing the damn race card!

MeowLove MeowLove

i did it from 12-16 and eventually stopped on my own. im glad you are trying therepy first instead of meds, because youll be able to fix the root of this problem by finding it first, not with chemicals. ive been on all sorts of anti deppressants and its not til now, at 22 that i found a therepist who wants to talk it out instead of writing me a prescription. 

bills... billsfan1104

Do you think the way you blame whitey all the time, she has a self esteem problem, because of things you blog about?

I feel for her. I would get her help, without you being in the counseling session. Dont badger her, listen to her and most of all love her.

morga... morgani6904

I use to cut myself from the time I was 10 until I was 21. I used plenty of coping skills to get through it, but sometimes they just didn't work. I'm almost 26, and the feeling sometimes comes over me to do it again. I'm ashamed of the way my whole body looks because of all the cutting I did when I was younger. I can't wear shorts or tank tops. Forget about ever wearing a bathing suit, too. I spent time in a hospital to help me stop cutting, but all that did was make me figure out how to hide it better. Now, I'm looking into ways to lesson the appearance of my scars because when people look at my arms, I guess, they just don't know what to say. It turns some people off. I've also had a hard time finding a job because of it too.

Stink... Stinkydog

I don't think she's playing any sort of race card. She's saying that mental health issues are ignored in the black community, by the black community themselves. Not that "whitey" has anything to do with it (how obnoxious, by the way, you should be ashamed of yourself for that comment).
Janelle, I think you're brave for speaking up and I wish you and your daughter the best.

tinyp... tinypossum

4mutts and Billsfan, no where in this post did Janelle "blame whitey" or "play the race card". Saying something is prevalent and not recognized/ is stigmatized in a particular community is merely relaying facts. She didn't lay any blame.

She opened up here about a very painful private matter and you two take the opportunity to bash and shame her. You guys are jerks.

Véronique Houde

The best thing to do when you have a child who self-harms is 1-not to flip out about it because it will shut them up as fast as they thought to open up in the first place 2- encourage them to talk about their feelings and what's making them upset on a daily basis. 3- don't try watching over them 24/7 because they'll only feel caged and it will make them want to hurt themselves even more. 4- help them find more positive ways to vent their feelings, like art, music, sports, taking a walk, taking a bath or a shower, etc. 

I find it weird how you made this article about "black girls". Self-harm cuts across gender, race, geographic location... and the cutting is the same for everyone who does it. I also think that your daughter would most probably have a problem with you talking about her issues without her permission. I hope that the was okay with this blog and that she approved it. After all, self-harming is such a misunderstood and secretive issue that you wouldn't want her to get even more crap for it in her surroundings, no?

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