As a police officer, you are expected to wear a variety of hats including peace keeper, mediator, rule enforcer and social worker. More and more officers find themselves called to address issues which used to fall squarely in the mental health field. Although improved training is providing officers with tools and techniques to deal with these new roles, often police officers find themselves faced with situations that require a broader awareness and understanding. Officers that work with adolescents, especially School Resource Officers (SRO), find themselves in a unique position to recognize and provide resources for teenagers who might not be getting the help they need and who exhibit concerning behaviors.
One behavior that seems new but has been around for a while is the act of cutting. Although not new as a behavior, cutting has breached our dialogue and is more talked about than before. This talking makes cutting appear more common. This dialogue also makes those injuries on the adolescent arm stand out more to an officer. There is an awareness of this behavior that was nt there before. Julie Williamson, a child and family therapist who works with emotionally disturbed children, points out the current environment of blood, vampires and gore desensitizes adolescents. Due to this, they more readily turn to cutting as an emotional release. It is this emotional release which is at the heart of those who self-injure.
Cutting makes them feel better - as strange as that might sound. Those who cut usually start in the early teens and can continue through late adolescence. Cutters use a variety of instruments to injure their skin, usually on the wrist, arm, leg or belly. Some self-injure by burning themselves. The mark does not need to be deep. The purpose behind the behavior is a physical pain that acts as a release for the emotional pain the child is feeling. Strong emotion, intense pain and the myriad of psychological changes an adolescent deals with at this stage of development can all lead to cutting. When a child has not learned other ways to cope and is struggling with the ability to express the strong emotion they are feeling, cutting might become their mechanism. Williamson also states those with unresolved sexual or physical trauma are at high risk for this behavior. Once a teen finds the act of cutting relieves their tension, they may turn to cutting as a primary means of coping. Cutting can become compulsive. Most cutters do not flaunt their wounds, in fact, most try very hard to hide them from others. Cutting might also be a symptom of mental illness, such as an eating or anxiety disorder or bipolar and/or be accompanies by other risk-taking behaviors. Cutting, as described here, is not an attempt at suicide or used to get attention. Cutting is a coping behavior and a symptom of other issues that need to be addressed.
What can You do?
As an officer, you might encounter a child who is cutting. You could be responding to a frantic 9-1-1 call from a parent, a report of a teen in the school office caught with a razor blade, or catch a glimpse of a scratched wrist while teaching a class. Follow professional rules such as mandatory reporting guidelines as well as assist the child to get professional help. As a first responder and first line of defense, there are some tools you can use to best help a child who has turned to this way of coping.
What not to do
Do not react with horror
Although most officers are well trained to not react with horror, encountering a child with slashes up their wrist or bloody bandages on their leg can be intense, especially if this child is your own. Judgment can feel like rejection to a teen. It might look bad physically and be beyond most people's experience, but this is a coping behavior not self-mutilation.
Do not overreact
In the past, many adolescents have found themselves on suicide watch and psychiatric holds because of cutting. It's still best to have a professional evaluation, but often an officer, in talking to a teen, can get a sense of the intention behind the marks. A cutter is not crazy. He or she is relieving inside pain with outside pain.
A child who is cutting needs professional help. Mentioning what you see is not going to cause them to cut more. Ignoring this behavior will also not make it go away. Again, follow any applicable professional and ethical guidelines.
What to do
Reflect what you see. Tell the adolescent you notice the cuts or that a concern was brought to you they might be hurting themselves. Williamson recommends a statement like, "You must be feeling pretty bad inside." Then listen.
Remind them they are not their behaviors
Adolescence is a tough time without any added issues, such mental illness or abuse. With all that is going on in the developing mind, teens have a lot to cope with. Often they feel they are crazy and others might reflect their beliefs this is true as well. Cutters might feel this more acutely. Reflect to the child that cutting is often a coping mechanism and like all behaviors can be changed.
Draw up a contract of action
After meeting all professional guidelines, you might want to draw up a contract. In this, state a course of action, such as, "if you're hurting, you'll talk to your parent, counselor, etc." Do not present an agreement such as, "you won't cut." The child needs new coping mechanisms not to have one taken away.
Although when you took the oath to protect and serve, you might not have comprehended the shear scope of the role society needs you to play, an increase in awareness and understanding can help you help others, especially adolescents. You might be the first person, or the only person, a teen cutter finds that reacts appropriately, validates their emotional pain, and offers real solutions. How you respond might be the catalyst to improving a child's life and guiding them to becoming healthy, happy adults. The scars might remain on their flesh, but the wounds of the mind can heal.