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Former University of Oklahoma student shares her story of often misunderstood self-injury disorder


Luke Atkinson May 6th, 2010

It was a little more than one year ago when University of Oklahoma graduate Brittany Burden published her story of self-mutilation to the student body.In OU's student newspaper, The Oklahoma Daily, Bu...

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It was a little more than one year ago when University of Oklahoma graduate Brittany Burden published her story of self-mutilation to the student body.

In OU's student newspaper, The Oklahoma Daily, Burden recounted the pain and rehabilitation she underwent to stop the devastating cycle of self-injury as a means to curb depression. The then-English literature senior wanted to raise awareness for the disorder for Self-Injury Awareness Day, which occurs annually on March 1.

Self-injury is the deliberate damaging of body tissue without suicidal intent. The practice is often confused with attempted suicide, but mental-health nonprofit organization Helpguide defines the disorder as injuring by burning or hitting oneself, hitting walls, piercing and " in Burden's case " cutting.

She began using the technique as a means of coping with a new school at age 14. According to the nationally recognized, self-injury clinic S.A.F.E. Alternatives, this behavior can be common among young men and women. Although statistics are difficult to obtain, the hospital reports that 15 percent to 20 percent of adolescents in community samples exhibit the signs or behaviors of self-injury.

Although figures exist nationally, the Oklahoma State Department of Health does not record statistics about self-harm. Pam Archer, chief of Injury Prevention Services, said that due to a lack of funding, the department can consider only cases involving suicide or attempted suicide.

"We receive 80 percent of our funding from federal grants," Archer said. "We use that money to collect information on, say, brain disorders, but self-injury is not one aspect we look at."

While Burden was capable of hiding the scars and living with the disorder, she finally crashed seven years later, during her junior year of college. She said her first cut of that year was one she'll never forget.

While heading to class on the Norman campus, Burden found a thumbtack in a bulletin board in Gaylord Hall. On her bicep, she drew a deep, vertical line. This practice of cutting lines to match each other became a norm for her, as did substituting dark, long-sleeved sweaters for her bright, youthful clothing.

"At a time when I could have turned to friends and family for support, I turned instead to my old, bad habit: a razor and a box of Band-Aids," she wrote in her account to students.

Self-injury is not simply a failed suicide attempt or an outlet to cause harm. Self-injurers are looking for a means of emotional regulation, and injury releases chemicals in the brain to create a sensation of self-soothing. Burden believes the lack of knowledge about the disorder leads people to make unfair judgments or can lead to obliviousness.

"There was an instance on campus where I just cut myself and went to class," Burden said. "Later, my wounds began bleeding again. I left class and ran into a building to clean up the wounds. The people there were so confused by it. They didn't put two and two together. I think there is a problem with awareness and self-injury."

Without the resources to seek help, self-injurers like Burden have a difficult time finding relief. After a long period of searching, she was referred to S.A.F.E. Alternatives and started down her road to recovery.

Despite a relapse months ago, she said she is happy, cut-free and awaits a trip to Paris. Although she is heading abroad, the lack of research here at home that can help others in her former situation still bothers her.

"I wish there was a way I could further awareness," Burden said. "I hope my story can help someone else who may be suffering."

She concluded her personal story of self-injury on a note of perseverance: "Real life is a strange and unnerving journey through even more strange and unnerving events. But there's nothing to do but carry on. I cannot stop my life, and I no longer want to." "Luke Atkinson
 
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