Imagine a group of 9th grade girls sitting in a cafeteria. Their table is near the corner and out of the way so nobody can see very well what's going on. One girl slides her sleeve up her arm, indicating a fresh wound, "From last night," she says. She points to another scrape on her arm from a few weeks past. Another girl shyly exposes several scars on her own arm, while another explains that the girls should cut their thighs or bellies instead--so their parents won't see the scars. A fourth girl tells them, "That's so stupid, why do you do that anyway?" She is convinced that they "just want attention."
If someone pressed a knife to your neck, wouldn't you want some attention? If you found yourself being pulled into a dark alley against your will, wouldn't you want some attention? If you were drowning, wouldn't you want some attention? If you saw a house on fire, and knew there were children inside, wouldn't you want some attention? Some help?
I am sad to report that a story like this one isn't as rare or fictional as we might like to believe. And the argument of the 4th girl, that these girls are "stupid" and "just want attention," is a common response. Sadly, not a helpful one.
I have been trying to get my 9th grade Sunday school class (all girls) to talk about some issues that might be bothering them, and someone mentioned girls who cut themselves. I don't if any of these girls who were present do this or not, but most of them knew someone who did. It's not an issue I ever gave very much thought to, so I decided to spend sometime this week researching the phenomenom.
And I discovered that it does happen a lot. And, as I understood from the girls, it happened as a response to some abnormal stress in a girl's life. Relayed to me, for example, was the story of one girl who cut gave the excuse that her father had cheated on her mother.
Unfortunately adultery isn't something so rarely seen these days--we find our politicians and celebrities engaging in it, no wonder that average moms and dads have no immunity either. But would you have imagined, if you were the girls father, that your behavior would cause your teenage daughter to inflict injuries on her body?
If we are to believe statistics that 1 in 10 girls self-harm each year (i.e., cut themselves), that is no small number to ignore. And I for one don't think it's fair at all to label girls who cut as "stupid" or just "attention-seekers." It is very likely that they are seeking attention for a very legitimate reason--they are unable to deal with stress in their life. They might be more sensitive than most, or dealing with very strange experiences, such as infidelity between their parents, or abuse. The cutting actually seems to be a way for them to relieve stress--a kind of screaming that is private, and silent.
What about the showing off? I don't think the girls are showing scars to gain popularity, but they do it really as a cry for help. They won't show parents, for example--thus the idea of hiding the cuts where they can't be seen (belly or thighs.) But even the girls who cut their arms might make a point of wearing long sleeves. But they show others--why? I think the girls really might need help.
One girl in my class told me someone had talked to her about cutting, and it was clear to me at least that the girl was looking for help. Now the young sister wasn't sure exactly what to do, and I don't know what to do. A lot of what I read suggested that first just listening might help, and that going to the girl's parents or family (who in fact might be the cause of the stress) wouldn't necessarily be the best way to help.
I tried to convey to the girls the importance of listening to people when things are going wrong with them, and just listening even if they don't know what to do to help--the girl just might need someone to listen and be a friend. Also I tried to help them understand that it was something serious, and not something "stupid." If a girl was cutting herself in order to cope, it meant she was unable to find another way of coping with her problems. So either a more productive way of coping with stress is needed, or perhaps the removal of stress. And ultimately I sort of encouraged them to listen and not to mock.
It's also worthwhile to point out that it seems like some teens, perhaps instead of or in addition to cutting, might deliberately over-medicate (even with household drugs) or perhaps turn to more serious kinds of drugs.
I would like to hear someone from the Muslim community comment about this, since I don't think it is a safe assumption at all that Muslimahs would be immune from choosing this kind of response to stress in their lives. Reading the stories of some girls who were cutting, stories of abuse, just presented so nonchalantly, it really brought me to tears. If anyone reading could offer some religious or spiritual insight in to the problem of girls cutting themselves, I would really appreciate it.