Ignoring the Crisis of Cutting and Self-Harm Among Black Children

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Today is Self-Injury Awareness Day. It’ll hardly get a passing mention across most African-American media platforms because it’s not a “black issue.” On the contrary, it is.

I’m the mother of a loveable 15-year-old daughter. She’s bubbly and funny. She wears me out reenacting scenes from High School Musical and Twilight. She’s astute for her age and makes really valid observations for someone whose days add up to a mere decade and a half. She adores Kendrick Lamar and takes selfies wearing Crayola-colored lipsticks. She’s a normal teenager, for the most part. But she cuts herself. On purpose.

One of the worst times she did it just so happened to be the same day Rick Warren’s son committed suicide. I turned the corner into her room and my eyes flew to a gash that ran up the middle of her left thigh. Blood oozed from it; she hovered over it in tears, her locs dangling low enough to graze it. It wasn’t the first time she’d cut. She’s been doing it on and off for more than two years. Other parts of her body already bore the scars of her need to release unspoken anxiety and pain. Self-injurers aren’t necessarily suicidal but this was the worst cut yet, and saddened with the news of Matthew Warren’s death, I shrieked and dropped to my knees.

“Skylar,” I pleaded. “What’s wrong? Why would you do that?” She shook her head. She couldn’t explain. There aren’t many times as a mother that I’ve felt helpless. I’ve been overwhelmed, scatterbrained and stretched too thin, but never completely clueless about what to do. If someone was bothering her at school, I could call a meeting with administrators or confront the kid and their parents. If she was nursing a broken heart or reeling from the loss of a friendship, I could listen and offer up some advice because I’ve been there. But this is foreign. The enemy is inside her own mind.

There are times you have to scream at God, to God, for God all in the same breath, and I’ve done it in strings of prayerful jibberish and wordless sobs. I asked for guidance for this specific problem and unique situation. I’d seen young white girls on Intervention steal away to a bathroom and slice their skin open with razor blades, but that was all I’d known about self-injury. Honestly, it didn’t strike me as something black folks do, whatever that means. I’ve since encountered plenty of other people who also hold that misconception.

Once I called a psychologist’s office, and after I explained my need for an appointment, the receptionist said, voice full of shock, “Wow, really?” For that and a dozen other reasons, I kept the issue hush-hush because I didn’t want my daughter to be treated like a freak or a basket case. Kids in school were calling her “emo”—short for “emotional”—and she took it in stride. I didn’t. Eventually, we both stopped being scared of judgment in order to share the struggle. We had to. In my research, I found a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry that revealed black girls are actually more likely to self-harm than white girls, but less likely to receive treatment. It’s happening to more than just my daughter.

The most likely group to self-harm is black teenagers, specifically black teenage boys, and they’re getting younger and younger in the doing. Most of them aren’t just using one method of self-injury. They’re burning their skin. Cutting. Pulling their hair. Punching themselves. Banging their heads into walls. The mental health treatment they need is not only undervalued in our community; it’s expensive and inaccessible. Particularly in low-income neighborhoods with parents just trying to hustle the monthly rent, physical needs are paramount and mental health becomes a luxury. It’s understandable, but it’s not helping these kids find the healthy emotional release or develop the lasting coping skills they need to stop self-injuring.

Last summer, a psychiatrist diagnosed my daughter with major depressive disorder and abandonment issues and prescribed an individual program of therapy and antidepressants, which haven’t been all that effective. She hasn’t cut recently, but her flagging grades and low motivation are the newest mode of acting out and self-destruction. But she’s found it helpful, even freeing, to talk about her experience on social media with other girls who share her struggles. It’s not my ideal form of expression, but she’s stumbled on an unlikely support network. Some grew out of it, others have relapsed, but it seems to have helped her know that it’s not her solitary battle.

I support her the best way I know how, but that’s complicated at times by my need to parent her, too. Putting her in check when she brings home a bad grade or doesn’t clean her junky room has a companion fear that the stress will trigger a reaction that will spark her refuge in cutting. That worry does have a silver lining: It’s made me slower to nitpick unnecessarily and quicker to think about not only what I say, but how I say it.

Something touched me the day Rick Warren lost his son. If he, a pastor with access to premium medical care for his family, couldn’t save his child, then how could I be so sure I could save my own? Then, one Sunday in church, God reminded me of an incident during my pregnancy that could’ve easily killed her before she was even born. I heard Him say so clearly, “If I took care of her then, I’ll take care of her now.” I’m clinging to that promise. I want her to know joy. I want her to know her worth. I want her—and all of our kids struggling to understand their desire to mutilate themselves—to be her own greatest love.


Writer and blogger Janelle Harris resides in Washington, D.C., frequents Twitter and lives on Facebook.