Psychodynamic being the study of behavior as to motivation appears to flounder on self-harm, which has been described as one of the human behaviors "incredibly difficult to comprehend (Apter, 2002)." Thus, research has gone no further than setting the psychoanalytic concepts invoked by self-harm and establishing that this destructive behavior typically begins in early adolescence, which is around age 14, with the incidence seeming to peak between 16-25 years of age. This paper discusses those psychoanalytic concepts and explores their practical application in the adolescent stage of one's life. It examines self-harm from the perspective of psychoanalysis to see why adolescents otherwise considered normal sometimes exhibit such an abnormal behavior and in the process gain insights on how to handle such people.
Self-harm is defined as a deliberate and often repetitive destruction or alteration of one's own body tissue, without suicidal intent (Favazza, 1989; Lerner & Steinberg, undated). People who engage in this patently destructive act thus hurt themselves not to end their life but rather to enable them to carry on living by obtaining relief from intense emotions or by creating feelings when they feel numb inside. In other words, a person who truly attempts suicide seeks to end all feelings whereas a person who self-mutilates only seeks to feel better (Adams, undated). Most research on the subject emphasizes the distinction between self-harm and suicide. In fact self-harm is often referred to by residents as a means of survival, or relief from extreme distress and pent-up emotion. Nevertheless, most housing and mental health workers who have experience of this phenomenon will know at least one client who has severely injured or killed him/herself through either miscalculation of method or inability to resolve core problems and subsequent attempted or successful suicide (CSP, 2004).
Fillmore & Dell (2005) hold that self-harm occurs and continues unabated because of several factors:
- A strong relationship between childhood and adult experiences of violence and involvement in self-harm.
- The onset of self-harm occurs primarily during adolescence.
- There is a lack of awareness of existing resources for self-harm in the community and in correctional institutions.
- Specific programs and clear guidelines and policies on self-harm were generally lacking in both community and correctional settings.
Some of the terms used to describe self-harm include self-injury, self-mutilation, self-inflicted violence, auto-aggression, and para-suicide. The exact prevalence rate is unknown but it is believed that 400-750 people per 100,000 make self-harm their release valve for negative feelings. Self-harm is also 10 to 100 times more common than suicide but these statistics are not reliable because of the private nature of this act, compounded by the fact that many of such incidents are never brought to the attention of professionals. In one study, 71 percent of the young people who resort to self-harm considered this act to be an addiction (JCK, 2004), and as such may be as prevalent as the addiction to prohibited substances.
A striking feature of the social portrait of self-harming adolescents is the high level of family disruption and trauma in