“Cutting” in the Black Community

Cutting and African American youth is a very real occurrence in our community. it is suggested that 1 in 4 youths are involved in Non-Suicidal Self Injury. Common forms of NSSI involve, cutting, hitting or punching, banging parts of the body, which could include the head, legs and arms. Also burning, biting, scratching or digging nails in skin. Picking at scars or scabs, thereby interfering with the healing of wounds.

Most youth report this behavior as a way to cope with immense emotional pain such as depression, anxiety,  and disappointment. NSSI is also used as a way to release anger, frustration and sometimes rage. Experiencing pain is the quickest way to gain control over their emotions, in their minds. Although in cases of NSSI, pain is not really felt in the sense one would normally feel. This is because  the body’s natural “feel good” chemicals (endorphins) kick in and soften the sensation of pain.

Research confirms African American youth currently are choosing NSSI as a way of coping at the same alarming rates as white youth (e.g. Hilt, Cha, & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2008). Precise NSSI  numbers in the black community are difficult to get because blacks traditionally avoid formal mental health treatment. Their hesitancy to admit to NSSI is due to the extraordinary stigma in the black community, and because research has traditionally not been conducted in this under-represented population.

Many risk factors in our community lead to NSSI such as, poor relationship skills, difficulty dealing with conflict, poor impulse control, and indulging in other self-destructive behaviors (e.g. alcohol or drug use, cigarette smoking, risk-taking behaviors, eating disorders, etc.). Although much more research is needed, there is speculation that risk factors for NSSI behaviors could be different for blacks. Exposure to stressful situations and conditions that are outside of a person’s control can increase the risk for engagement in self-harming behavior. Such conditions can include abuse, violence, chaotic living environment, family discord or community upheaval. NSSI gives the person a sense of control that they do not have in other areas of their life. Lower levels of spirituality and ethnic identity have been linked to black suicide rates and may be important in understanding black NSSI, but more research is needed. Black youth living in communities with few to no other minorities nearby may suffer from feelings of isolation and place them at increased risk for NSSI. Decreases in community connectedness and formal rites of passage are considered to be playing a role in the rising rates of NSSI across races.

Warning Signs

•Withdrawing from friends and family
•Changing one’s friend circle, such as befriending other youth who are known to be involved in self-destructive behaviors
•Decrease in school performance
•Changing usual social activities
•Significant relationship problems
•Wearing long sleeves or long pants even in the hottest of weather
•Making excuses for frequent bruises, scratches, bite or burn marks, or cuts
•Collecting and hiding razors, knives, scissors, or other sharp objects
•Developing severe mood swings
•Demonstrating difficulty regulating emotions (e.g. unable to calm self down after disappointment, argument, frustration)
•Demonstrating significant problems managing stress

Tips for responding to NSSI

For parents who suspect their child is engaging in NSSI, first remember that the youth is experiencing intense emotional pain and is using NSSI as a way to cope with the overwhelming feelings. You may notice that you feel anger, hurt, disgust, fear, guilt, embarrassment, or sadness. These are all normal reactions to learning about a shocking behavior that your loved one is doing. Talk to a trusted person in your life (significant other, friend, family member, pastor) about your feelings. Do not unload your negative feelings on the self-injuring youth. Instead, approach the youth when you are feeling calm and compassionate. You can say something like: “I am concerned that you may be hurting yourself on purpose. I know it must be scary to be feeling so much pain in your life. You are not alone. I am here for you and available to talk if you would like that.” If the youth is not ready to talk right then, let them know you are available when they are ready. Do not insist that they show you their scars and wounds or do anything else that might cause them more embarrassment. If your child shows any signs of suicidal behavior (e.g. making comments about wanting to die or others being better off without them, writing a suicide note, giving away cherished items) then immediately seek emergency services. Otherwise, educate yourself about NSSI (a good resource is http://www.crpsib.com) and locate a qualified mental health professional to help your child overcome NSSI.

Dr. Karyn Bentley, founder of the Self-Injury Treatment and Education (SITE) program, has spent the last 12 years as a clinical psychologist, author and speaker. Her new company, Psychological Solutions, LLC specializes in helping communities recognize and combat negative habitual behaviors.


International Society for the Study of Self Injury (ISSS). http://www.issweb.org.

Hilt, L., Cha, C., & Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2008). Nonsuicidal Self-Injury in Young Adolescent Girls: Moderators of the Distress-Function Relationship. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(1), 63-71.