Whitlock on teen self-injury, anxiety, and depression in Time
December 6, 2016
In a recent Time Magazine cover story on Anxiety, Depression and the American Adolescent, the BCTR's Janis Whitlock describes the effect of current technology and social media on adolescent mental health:
"If you wanted to create an environment to churn out really angsty people, we’ve done it,” says Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. Sure, parental micromanaging can be a factor, as can school stress, but Whitlock doesn’t think those things are the main drivers of this epidemic. “It’s that they’re in a cauldron of stimulus they can’t get away from, or don’t want to get away from, or don’t know how to get away from,” she says.
Whitlock, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, goes on to describe why youth self-injure:
The academic study of this behavior is nascent, but researchers are developing a deeper understanding of how physical pain may relieve the psychological pain of some people who practice it. That knowledge may help experts better understand why it can be hard for some people to stop self-harming once they start. Whitlock, the director of the self-injury research program at Cornell, explains that studies are pretty consistent in showing that people who injure themselves do it to cope with anxiety or depression.
It’s hard to know why self-harm has surfaced at this time, and it’s possible we’re just more aware of it now because we live in a world where we’re more aware of everything. Whitlock thinks there’s a cultural element to it. Starting in the late 1990s, the body became a kind of billboard for self-expression—that’s when tattoos and piercings went mainstream. “As that was starting to happen, the idea of etching your emotional pain into your body was not a big step from the body as a canvas as an idea,” she says.
The idea that self-harm is tied to how we see the human body tracks with what many teens told me when I interviewed them. As Faith-Ann describes it, “A lot of value is put on our physical beauty now. All of our friends are Photoshopping their own photos—it’s hard to escape that need to be perfect.” Before the dawn of social media, the disorders that seemed to be the quintessential reflection of those same societal pressures were anorexia or bulimia—which are still serious concerns.
Whitlock says there are two common experiences that people have with selfharm. There are those who feel disconnected or numb. “They don’t feel real, and there’s something about pain and blood that brings them into their body,” she says.
On the other end of the spectrum are people who feel an overwhelming amount of emotion, says Whitlock. “If you asked them to describe those emotions on a scale of 1 to 10, they would say 10, while you or I might rate the same experience as a 6 or 7. They need to discharge those feelings somehow, and injury becomes their way,” she explains.
The research on what happens in the brain and body when someone cuts is still emerging. Scientists want to better understand how self-harm engages the endogenous opioid system—which is involved in the pain response in the brain—and what happens if and when it does.
Some of the treatments for self-harm are similar to those for addiction, particularly in the focus on identifying underlying psychological issues—what’s causing the anxiety and depression in the first place—and then teaching healthy ways to cope. Similarly, those who want to stop need a strong level of internal motivation.
Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright - Time Magazine (subscription required)
Photos by Lise Sarfati from the article - Time Magazine
How social media and tech impacts young minds - Morning Joe, MSNBC (video - discussion of Time cover story)