As a culture-watcher, I sometimes like to “rewind” as a way to gain perspective on just how much and how fast youth culture has changed. The practice serves to wake me up at times when familiarity with what was once relatively unknown lulls us to sleep because it’s become all-too-common and widespread. That creates huge problems, because we’re prone to sleep through things that are so normalized that they don’t catch our attention and wake us up anymore. Sadly, the epidemic of self-injurious behavior that’s swept through and taken up residence in today’s youth culture is one of those things. My “cutting” rewind reminds me just how diligent we really need to be.
I first-encountered self-injurious behavior – more specifically, cutting – in the adolescent ward of a private psychiatric hospital back in 1974. Days out of high school myself, I was hired as a well-intentioned yet terribly ill-equipped and untrained “Mental Health Technician,” working the four-to-midnight shift with a revolving cast of 15 teenagers who were dealing with a variety of psychiatric disorders. One common-thread besides their close-proximity was a tendency for them all to slice away at themselves with anything and everything sharp that they could get their hands on. Usually, it was on their wrists. That location combined with a great deal of ignorance among our professional supervisors to lead them to instruct us to chart any and every incident as an “attempted suicide” or “suicidal gesture.” In hindsight, none of us had any idea at all what we were dealing with.