Self-Harm and Psychic Contagion

Mental health services stretched as increasing number of self-harming teens seek help” was the headline in a number of Canadian newspapers today, including The Toronto Star. Medical and mental health staff are frankly perplexed by the sudden surge in those between the ages of 12 and 18 seeking help for self-harm behaviours. “In 2012-13, it [is] reported that 2,900 children and teens under 18 sought help — up 64 per cent since 2009-10….” It’s a safe bet that many, many more have not sought help, making this something of an epidemic.

The suggestion that here we might be facing our “canaries in a coal mine”, and that this is just further evidence of societal breakdown and civilisational decadence, can be overworked. But there may also be something to that.

It’s puzzling behaviour, and not only for us but also for those who indulge in self-harm. I try to think of precedents and parallels in history for this, and can only think of three or four possible parallels. One is the epidemic of self-flagellation and self-mortification amongst some Christian sects in the Middle Ages, (and today amongst some Shia Muslim sects). Another is Siddhartha’s time amongst the forest ascetics of India, before he came to his senses in the realisation that the practice of torture and torment of body and soul was totally aberrant and was not something that would lead to enlightenment.

In both cases, though, the historical context is relevant. These epidemics of self-mortification were coincident with a deep societal malaise, apathy, high stress, lack of inspiration, and civilisational decadence.

Another notable (and quite bizarre) example occurred a few years ago in South Korea — a dispute over temple finances — where monks of a rival Buddhist sect invaded the precincts of another temple. The temple defenders put up heavy “resistance” by (oddly enough) slashing themselves with knives, beating themselves with their own fists, and threatening to throw themselves off the temple roof.

Take that!

A few months ago, the “Cut for Bieber” Twitter campaign generated some alarm about the use of social media to promote self-harm. “Cut for Bieber” is a peculiar slogan or motto. “Cut” is evidently a replacement for “Pray”. It all begs the question whether this present form of mortification of the flesh isn’t, in fact, a perverse form of prayer and petition that is simplistically dismissed by some as nothing other than “attention seeking” behaviour.

A further intriguing aspect of this self-harm epidemic is suggested by Dr. Kathleen Pajer, quoted in the article:

“A lot of kids don’t really meet the criteria for these [psychiatric] disorders,” she said. “Instead, they seem to be suffering an existential crisis that is sort of, ‘I’m empty, I don’t know who I am, I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t have any grounding and I don’t know how to manage my negative feelings.’

Another doctor, Hazen Gandy, is cited,

“It could be burning themselves. It could be bruising themselves by repeatedly banging their fist against the wall. It’s a way of kind of giving the body a whole different set of inputs that allows them not to feel so awful inside.”

These (amongst other things) are the typical symptoms of narcissism, and so I have to wonder whether this self-harm epidemic isn’t the extreme mirror image — the inextricable obverse of the coin — of “the culture of narcissism.”

There is yet another parallel to this self-infliction of pain and injury, and that is the initiation ceremonies and rites of passage of many tribal traditions — genital mutilation, tooth-filing, tatooing, scarification, the Sundance, and so on. Here, pain serves the purpose of self-transcendence, of memorisation and rebirth, and is usually performed in conjunction with the dispensation of “adult” and secret knowledge (although I can think of better methods for this). Rites of passage are rituals of self-transcendence, and the need to escape the self — the need for transfiguration — may be the motive for self-harm.

That is to say, disfiguration may be the perverse, wayward expression of the need for a transfiguration; the frustrated expression of an innate urge and impulse for transfiguration and self-transcendence.  A sense of having no exalted future; and no hope of one.

In the absence of our own rites of passage for “teens” (a very artificial age category), self-harm may be an introjected performance of a social rite of passage that our “adults” no longer take seriously enough to observe, and therefore leave the young without spiritual inheritance, without mature guidance and without orientation at one of the most crucial and critical times of life. I have known young native men, for example, who were considered very bad apples, yet who straightened right out and assumed adult responsibilities after submitting to, and being inducted into, the painful Sundance ceremonies (and that takes a lot of guts).

If anyone knows of any other historical precedents or parallels for this self-harm craze, I’ld much appreciate hearing of it.

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9 responses to “Self-Harm and Psychic Contagion”

  1. alex jay says :

    Was there a connection intimated by the epidemic of psychotropic drug prescriptions (the figures are grotesque)? Meanwhile … things are not totally out of hand with our kids. Some have woken up to a point that should embarrass their elders as evidenced by this four minute clip of a young lady who manages to articulate one of the best obituaries I have yet heard on the Obama reign and toxic politics in general:

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    The conduct of young people – especially those from 12 – 18 years old – is a good barometer of the real impact and impression of what goes on in a society. You capture the essence of what’s going on very concisely in this statement:

    “That is to say, disfiguration may be the perverse, wayward expression of the need for a transfiguration; the frustrated expression of an innate urge and impulse for transfiguration and self-transcendence. A sense of having no exalted future; and no hope of one.”

    Exactly. If these kids are harming themselves, they must have lost any sense of self worth in the present or for the future. In that sense, they are quite intelligent. They sense the materialism and frivolity of the people around them and they are turned off by it. Because they are young, their spirit is quite impressionable and can sense the pointlessness of striving to become a part of that material world.

    The Toronto Star article mentions that the children that are harming themselves are from “affluent,” and “supportive” homes. Whether or not these children are mostly or exclusively coming from affluent homes is an easier data to collect than whether they are coming from supportive homes. I think the author of the article may have jumped the gun on declaring the homes from which these young people are from as “supportive.” As we know, material possessions, in and of themselves, don’t automatically create a supportive environment. The best way for a parent to support their children is by spending quality time with them every week. I don’t know if the parents of these kids who are cutting themselves were doing much of that. But I seriously doubt if they did.

    In terms of historical precedents, even though I didn’t take notes of this, I remember Tacitus make mention of the initiation ceremony of some German tribes, which was meant to induct young boys into manhood. Basically, the ritual was that teenage boys were not allowed to cut their hair (they were made to look like girls and were made fun of as such) until they ventured into the forest and hunted and brought back a wild boar singlehandedly. Some German boys chose not to cut their hair even after accomplishing the task. I think Tacitus mentioned this was because they had welcomed the challenge and wouldn’t mind doing it again.

    Yogis who sleep/sit on a bed of nails or practice walking on fire, and also some martial arts practitioners who practice punching into wood or other hard or hot stuff over and over for months and years as part of their training also come to mind.

    As you know, many fraternities, groups, or professional sports clubs in America have a long history of initiation “hazing” practices, too. I don’t know if that would count as self-abuse, however. I’m not sure if the practice of “Hara Kiri,” would fall into this category of self-abuse either, since it’s just a way of committing suicide.

    I’ve heard that some gypsy tribes practice something similar to what some Yogis do, piercing themselves with knives and swords and surviving the ordeal without any blood gushing out of their bodies.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Ah… your comment recalled to mind a short passage by Rosenstock-Huessy that I had forgotten. It occurs in The Christian Future; or, the modern mind outrun and is on “the suburb” and the “suburban mentality”. I omitted to acknowledge that in the post above, which was nonetheless brought out in the article — that these kids come from middle class families, ie — the burbs.

      Here’s a little of what Rosenstock writes about the suburb,

      “Suburban life is unreal because it shuns pain and conflict. A town or city includes all kinds of people; a suburb tends to contain only members of one income group, one race, one type of cultural background. They live elsewhere their most vital economic relations, the struggle for a livelihood… Suburban marriage is a kind of spiritual inbreeding: there is little room for adventure when boy and girl have know each other since high-school days. No Romeo or Juliet can come to life in a suburb because Montagues and Capulets do not wage their Homeric battles there, and no Miranda is courted on an island after a tempest…..
      Suburban life, accordingly, is prudent, kind, and barren. There is a special word for its lukewarm atmosphere: it has a mentality. Mentality is what is left of the soul when you subtract the crucifying experiences that bear fruit in more energetic and vital human relationships. Mentality knows nothing of jubilant joy and black despair, of yelling and cursing, moaning and groaning, shouting and dancing, and weeping and singing…. Small wonder, then, that teaching and preaching become verbiage in the suburb.”

      It goes on for a couple of pages with quite insightful comments on “suburban mentality” and the significance of having “a mentality” rather than a soul. I wish that brief essay were on the internet to link to, as I think it may well provide insight into self-harm as a suburban symptom. Suburban life tends, because of its homogeneity and uniformity, to be self-absorbed and monological. It has a kind of sterile groupthink “mentality”.

      There you have another irony and even a case of enantiodromia. If the retreat to the suburbs was to escape the experience of the messy things of life — pain, birth, death, conflict — it has nonetheless erupted inside the magic confines of the suburbs itself, because life needs that experience, as Rosenstock points out.

      The band Arcade Fire did produce a whole album called “The Suburbs”, and that was pretty much the theme of it too, it seems, judging from a couple of videos I’ve seen.

      • Scott Preston says :

        I might add that, given Rosenstock’s Christian orientation here, in speaking of a “mentality” he is using as a model Jesus’ remark “I would that you were hot or cold, but because you are lukewarm, I will spew thee from my mouth”. Such is the tepidness of the suburban life and mentality.

        From reading about the self-harm epidemic, it seems there is a close correlation between the behaviour of self-harm, self-affliction and the monoculture and banality of the suburban milieu.

        • LittleBigMan says :

          “…….self-harm may be an introjected performance of a social rite of passage that our “adults” no longer take seriously enough to observe, and therefore leave the young without spiritual inheritance, without mature guidance and without orientation at one of the most crucial and critical times of life.”

          Parents who are disengaged from their children are the key ingredient of the “suburban mentality.” Suburban parents may use material possessions as a way to disengage from the life of their kids. By the same token, if inner city kids are raised by parents who were disengaged during their upbringing, you often see the same type of self-destructive behavior from these kids, as well. A lot of these kids end up joining a gang, or get mixed up with drugs or some other form of self abuse.

          Only a very bright child will grow up with disengaged parents without developing some kind of personal issues. Informed parents who know what they are doing can prevent the impact of:

          “deep societal malaise, apathy, high stress, lack of inspiration, and civilisational decadence.”

          All of those things: “apathy,” “high stress,” “lack of inspiration,” and “decadence” are very much part of our time today. But parents can avert the impact of these factors on their children by staying engaged in the life of their children.

          Here’s the outlook of Dave Barry, one of my favorite writers, on raising his kids. Coincidently, there’s a reference to Bieber in the clip, too:

          http://www.nbcnews.com/feature/meet-the-press-24-7/press-pass-dave-barry-n54606

  3. tony says :

    Great description of the suburbs by Rosenstock.

    But the suburbs have been superseded in this context by the gated communities, although I guess their werent many of those in his time. The gated communties are not so much prudent, kind and barren, but rather insecure, self centred and paranoid. The modern day version of the medieval fortress built to keep out the other. And this style of living is mushrooming across the globe.
    As you so rightly say life needs the messy experiences. Attempt to flee from them without tackling your demons and theyll simply appear in a different format.

    I saw a bus go past today with a relevant ad (for what product exactly Im not quite sure) which said – Fear can be your greatest friend, but also your greatest enemy.
    .

    • Scott Preston says :

      Gated communities were probably the next step in the “Mad Max” post-Armageddon scenario after suburbs, and weren’t likely around in Rosenstock’s day. For that matter, there aren’t any gated communities I know of around here, but I’m sure they are on their way.

      Curious ad for and against fear. What was the context for it? Who sponsored it?

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