Of all the disorders now afflicting young people, perhaps most puzzling is self-injury -- deliberate cutting, cigarette-burning or other repetitive mutilation of body tissue. No one knows whether it's a sudden epidemic or has been rising gradually, but there appears to be an absolute increase in occurrence: "It has now reached critical mass and is on all our radar screens," says Russ Federman, director of counseling at the University of Virginia.
It's highly disturbing for a student to walk into a dorm room and find her roommate meticulously slicing her thighs with a shard of glass or a razor. But it may be the emblematic activity of the psychically shielded and overly fragile. People "do it to feel better. It's an impulsive act done to regulate mood," observes Armando Favazza, author of Bodies Under Siege: Self Mutilation in Psychiatry and Culture.
It's basically a very effective "home remedy" for anxiety, states Chicago psychiatrist Arthur Neilsen, who teaches at Northwestern University. People who deliberately hurt themselves -- twice as many women as men -- report "it's like popping a balloon." There's an immediate release of tension. It also serves an important defense -- distraction -- stresses Federman. "In the midst of emotional turmoil, physical pain helps people disconnect from the turmoil." But the effect is very short-lived.
Self-harm reflects young people's inability to find something that makes them feel fully alive. Earlier generations sought meaning in movements of social change or intellectual engagement inside and outside the classroom. "But young people are not speaking up or asking questions in the classroom," reports John Portmann, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and author of Bad for Us: The Lure of Self-Harm. It may be that cutting is their form of protest. So constrained and stressed by expectations, so invaded by parental control, they have no room to turn -- except against themselves.