According to Boys Town, callers reporting self-injury to its national crisis helpline nearly tripled between 2007 and 2011.
It reports that 79 percent of those callers are under 18, and 85 percent of them are females.
The most common form of self-injury is known as cutting, when a person takes a knife, paper clip or other sharp object and cuts or scratches herself until she draws blood. Burning is another form of self-injury and is usually accomplished through friction, such as rubbing an eraser on the skin, but also can be done using a lighter or match, according to Brian Hanasky, a licensed psychologist at Youth Services System in Wheeling.
"Cutting or burning are maladaptive coping strategies. They give the teen a sense of control," Hanasky said. The teen may be suffering pain in one area of his life, and in order to diminish that pain, he performs self-injury, an "intense, acute pain," that overrides it.
"There is actually some reward to this behavior," Hanasky said, in that the body responds to pain by releasing chemicals or hormones that dulls the acute, and in the process, the underlying pain.
Hanasky said people who cut are most often suffering some sort of mood disorder or depression.
Q: How can parents identify problems - cutting, purging or others - among their children?
A: First, they need to talk with their children. Also, warning signs parents can look for include withdrawal, irritability, changes in appetite and sleep patterns and changes in their group of friends.
Some may be acting out because of a major life transition such as a divorce or switching schools.
They may find a healthier way to adapt on their own. But in most cases, therapy and possibly medication are the common treatments.
"I would say with something such as cutting, therapy would almost always be needed," Hanasky said.
So, what can parents do to identify these behaviors?
Discovering a child is cutting is not always easy.
They tend to cut their arms and cover them with long sleeves, Hanasky said.
Warning signs parents can look for include withdrawal, irritability, changes in appetite and sleep patterns and "any obvious changes in their group of friends," Hanasky said.
If the child is wearing long sleeves more often or in hot weather, and has exhibited these other behaviors, Hanasky said the parent could ask her outright if she's OK.
"Be straight up about it," he said. If this doesn't work, a parent could try to innocently sneak a peek at the child's arms.
If cutting is discovered, the first thing a parent should do is ask the child if she has had any thoughts of suicide. If so, the child should be taken to the emergency room so she can be referred to an appropriate mental health facility, Hanasky said.
If not, an appointment or call to the child's physician may need to be made for a referral to a counselor.
"People tend to, for lack of a better word, get weirded out by the fact that it's 'mental health.' It's amazing what people will tell others about their physical health (problems), ... but if you have to go to a therapist because you're depressed, you'll say you went to the dentist.
"It's mental 'health,'" Hanasky said. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."
The Boys Town crisis helpline number is 800-448-3000.