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New self-harm support group creates rare safe space for healing



If you dealt with emotional pain by causing yourself physical pain in the form of cutting or burning yourself, you would probably be wary of revealing your secret to a group of strangers. But the leaders of a new support group at the HEDCO Clinic on campus want self-harmers to do just that.

Research estimates that undergrads are three times more likely than adults to engage in non-suicidal self-injury. Yet people seeking help are likely to be met by accusations that they are looking for attention or trying to kill themselves, both of which are common myths. And since 40 to 65 percent have experienced significant trauma, seeking help is even more difficult.

Self-injury functions like substance abuse: Pain releases endorphins, naturally occurring opiates that the brain produces as a reward for food or sex or to soothe after injury.

Nitsan Ozer and Mar Prutton, M.S. students in the Couples and Family Therapy program, started their support group in September 2013. They are supervised by Tiffany Brown, a UO researcher and lecturer who specializes in self-harm and addiction issues. “We were inspired to create this group based on a need more than anything,” said Prutton, explaining how difficult it is for people to find help. There are no other self-harm support groups in Eugene.

Often, other groups will focus too much on the cutting or burning, rather than addressing underlying causes, and people who self-harm can be criticized or shamed if they are unable to stop.

“I was actually told by one [therapist] that I needed to grow up and I was stupid,” one person said in a study by Brown.

Ozer and Prutton say their group is different. The focus is on healing and moving on, not dwelling on the behavior.

Brown’s research shows that getting comfortable talking about self-harm is the first step: “All the rest of it comes after someone feels connected and safe and believes in the people that are serving them,” Brown said, “Which Mar and Nitsan have done really well.”

Ozer agreed: “We’ve heard from multiple members that it’s been so helpful to come in and just be with people who get it, to feel like what they’re doing makes sense and has served a purpose, and hearing that other people have done it as well.”

It has been a little hard to find people who are willing to join the support group, since many people have had such upsetting experiences with mental health treatment in the past. One participant in Brown’s study said they had never told their therapist about their self-harm: “It’s not like he’d understand; he didn’t even get eating disorders. I just feel like people don’t really get it and they don’t really want to know about it.”

But there are significant benefits to treating a stigmatized behavior in a group, as in 12-step programs for recovering addicts and alcoholics.

“The idea of bringing addiction or self harm issues into a group setting is that those relationships are what is healing,” said Prutton, “So if you have a cohesive group that you can rely on, then what’s really powerful more than anything is just having those relationships.”

Written by Rebecca Brewster


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