Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

People who cut may be living with serious underlying problems

November 14, 2012

Q.I’m in a situation and I don’t know what I should do. I was talking with a friend today and I noticed that behind the slew of bracelets she always wears were cut marks. A lot of them. And I know that she is very independent and strong and if I were to mention it, I feel like she would just brush it off. I don’t know if I should go ahead and try to talk with her or I should anonymously tell my guidance counselor or a teacher. What do you think? Doing nothing isn’t OK with me.

– 14-year-old female

Mary Jo response: First, I’m thrilled that you texted your question. You’re a good friend. I’m also glad that you’re carefully considering your next step. Most people are sensitive to social rejection or judging. It is important to show support when/if you talk with your friend.

Second, I want to offer you support. It’s really challenging when a friend needs help. You are not responsible for your friend’s choices. Please take care of yourself and don’t allow your spirit to be dragged down by your friend’s situation. Adults are here for a reason. Have you tried talking with your mom or another trusted adult? A parent’s perspective might help you know what do to next.

Let’s talk about self-injury (also called cutting). Young people who cut don’t typically plan to cause themselves severe injury. Cutting isn’t usually a suicide attempt. Most teens who cut say that they can stop and that they know when to stop.

But ... self-injury is still risky behavior. Scarring, infection and even shock can result from self-injury. Another challenge to consider is that cutting may be a sign of another problem. People who self-injure may be living with an eating disorder, may be socially isolated or depressed, or may need professional counseling.

Here are some hints:

1. Tell someone: Keeping a secret about cutting isn’t healthy for your friend. She deserves to feel well. Telling an adult who knows your friend and can reach her – especially a trusted guidance counselor or teacher – is a smart move. A skilled counselor will know how to talk with your friend without judging her. Many young people who self-injure are afraid to speak up. I’ll be happy to meet with her as well.

2. Acknowledge your friend’s feelings: It’s important that you affirm your friend. She needs to know that she’s visible and important to you. It may sound sappy, but she needs to know that you care.

3. Be a good role model: Everyone experiences strong emotions like loss or sadness. Model healthy reactions to life’s disappointments. Show how you calm yourself down when upset or how you problem solve. Your friend can learn from the way you avoid drama.

Things NOT to do:

1. Don’t follow your friend’s behavior: I’ve known groups of friends who all began cutting when one person started the behavior. Don’t be pressured. Don’t try it to “see how it feels.”

2. Don’t encourage the cutting: Try to avoid drama and attention on the self-injury. Don’t judge, but also don’t reinforce the idea that cutting is OK.

3. Avoid ultimatums: Your friend will make her own choices. If you’re a good friend you won’t put her on the spot by linking your friendship to her controlling the behavior.

An excellent online resource is Safe Alternatives ( The site offers information on self-injury as well as guidance and support. Their hotline is 1-800-DONTCUT.

Please keep in touch and let me know how I can help. Good luck.

Peer Educator Response:

Some of us know people who cut. At times they are hospitalized. We understand exactly how you feel. It’s tough to know how a friend will react to help. Remember not to try to do this alone, though. Get help.

Youth Champions: Shout out to President Bob Griffin and the Washington NAACP for hosting the State NAACP Conference last weekend. It was an honor to attend and hear speakers committed to empowering youth.

Be Part of the Solution: Washington Mayor Brenda Davis is spearheading a group of concerned community members and college students on a March Against Violence this Saturday at 11 a.m. Walkers should meet at Old Main on W&J’s campus. I’ll be there with some of our peer educators. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with questions about the march.



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