Q: A friend of mine at school has started cutting herself. Should I tell anyone? (I don’t want people to think I’m a rat.)
A: You raise many important issues, so let’s tackle the most difficult first. You are poorly informed on the subject of rats. In a study published in December of 2011 in the journal Science, researchers at the University of Chicago demonstrated that rats are empathetic, will go out of their way to free another rat trapped in a cage, and– I think you will agree that this is the ultimate test– chose kindness to other rats over chocolate. What is to be learned from our unjustly maligned furry friends? Be a rat: help a friend in need.
Cutting food is polite, cutting material is an art form, cutting your own body is self-harm, and an estimated one in every 200 girls between 13 and 19 years old in the US cut themselves regularly. In Britain, the number is estimated to be much higher: 13% of fifteen- to sixteen-year-olds. Cutting is a sign of distress, and signals that your friend needs compassion and help. Chances are, the best help will be provided by a trusted adult who can help your friend make contact with the type of support and care she needs. This person could be a parent, teacher, guidance counselor, or health care professional. It’s important to understand that without support, your friend will likely not stop on her own, but that with support most teens who cut can stop within a year.
Clearly, you have the right instincts. So the real question becomes not should you tell but whom should you tell and how. Consult your list of trusted adults– starting with her parents or your parents. Do you have reason to believe that any of those would not be a wise choice? Reasons, mind you, are not “she might get in trouble,” but rather “I’m concerned they may be hurting her at home.” Many teens who self-injure live with alcoholism or violence in their homes. If you are unsure, look to someone at your school whom you both trust, with a preference toward guidance counselors who, after all, have been given the training to help teens with such difficult issues. There are also many online and phone resources which you can find here.
Equally, if not more important, is how to tell. You are acting out of concern for your friend’s wellbeing, so treating her with respect is crucial. Talk to her first. Tell her what you have learned about cutting and that you are concerned for her. Ask her if she has told an adult. If not, ask her who she thinks could help her and offer to set up the conversation and go with her for support. Let her know that she is not alone and that people understand the nature of her problem and have been very successful in helping teens move past cutting. Hopefully with your support she will be able to choose the person she wants to tell. If not, your choice is more difficult.
But this ninja says, “ninja up”– let your friend know that you’d much rather go with her to talk to someone, but because her friendship and wellbeing really matter to you, you are going to need to tell someone whether she wants you to or not. Be upfront about what you plan to do. Once she sees your mind is made up, she may be relieved and want to go along, but it’s also possible that she will be upset with you. As difficult as it may be, that’s okay. True friends are willing to take positive risks in a friendship and this is one that should be taken. Choose wisely in the person you approach. Telling other friends is not the right path and smacks of gossip. If you are going to tell, tell someone who can specifically improve the situation.
Be sure not to overlook some super Ninja self-care for yourself in this difficult situation. If you are someone who feels others’ emotions and whose mood and wellbeing are affected by them, then no doubt this is a difficult time for you also. And if you struggle with issues of acceptance and loyalty, then you have been under some stress as well. You should know that you are a good friend, and that sometimes being a good friend means breaking a confidence in order to try and help someone we care about. Ninjas keep confidences, but they don’t keep toxic secrets, even if those secrets weren’t shared with any intent to harm. Walk your own path. Don’t be afraid to be a rat.
For more in depth information on cutting, self harm, and how to help a friend in trouble see Germ Magazine’s special issue of Safe Life: Cutting.