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.
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.