Self-harm—clinically defined as the deliberate destruction of one's body tissue without suicidal intent, such as cutting, burning, and hair-pulling—is not new. What is new is the proliferation of images and messages through social media that may trigger these behaviors among those vulnerable to them. This is the finding of research published this month in Pediatrics journal.

The study examined one hundred YouTube videos focused on self-injury. Researchers analyzed the most-viewed videos appearing under the search words "self-injury" and "self-harm," and found that the top 100 videos were viewed over 2 million times and marked as "favorites" over 12,000 times. While some videos require viewers to verify they are at least 18 (a simple process requiring no proof of age), most of the videos were viewable to all. The researchers conclude that the videos "express a hopeless or melancholic message" and "may foster normalization of non-suicidal self-injury and may reinforce the behavior through regular viewing of non-suicidal self-injury-themed videos."

A cursory look at these videos confirms that even those presented as cautions against self-injury seem more likely to glamorize it. Ambient music, moody settings and images, and artistic renderings of self-injury are typical. One recurring type features animated characters, further removing self-harming behaviors from the realm of reality, yet aimed at viewers whose very struggle is to remain grounded in reality.

My introduction to cutting occurred years ago when I was a 20-something English teacher in a Christian high school. I'd never heard of cutting before. Like all of the subsequent students I've encountered who self-injure, this student was female, intelligent, intense, and experiencing deep emotional turmoil. Everything "Grace" told me about her cutting is consistent with my later research and experiences. Around age 15, prompted by feelings of rejection, Grace began self-injuring by grating her knuckles on the brick fireplace that went through her bedroom. She later explained, "I had an overwhelming sense of pain that I didn't know how to deal with, and I felt that whatever my problems were were my fault. So the physical pain seemed to sate the mental pain."

More recently, "Amy," a college-age friend, told me about a bout with cutting she underwent in the midst of a prolonged break-up last year. Helpless and alone after her boyfriend walked out on her, she made numerous shallow slices along her arm. "Feeling lost in a mental tornado," she says, "the physical sensation of cutting seemed to be the only thing that could bring me back to reality." These first cuts were so gentle that the welts, like mysterious modern-day stigmata, didn't appear until the next day. However, her third and last cut resulted in an emergency call and a permanent scar that she has since hidden under a tattoo.

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Amy is confident now that her cutting days are over. She acknowledges her actions to be the proverbial "cry for help." Grace wasn't so lucky: her foray into cutting was followed by years of drug addiction and other self-destructive behaviors. Thankfully, she has been clean for a number of years now, although she fights depression, a condition likely connected to her struggles from the beginning.

Not all cutters and self-injurers go down such destructive paths. Many are highly functioning. Among these is a graduate student I know who, among other self-harming behaviors, deliberately irritates her stomach ulcers before settling in to work on her thesis. The pain, she says, helps prevent other distractions that would take her focus off her writing. She doesn't see herself as a self-harmer, however. She asked me recently how her "method" of working is any different from that of a friend who sits in an uncomfortable chair when she works. "It's different," I said, "because sitting in an uncomfortable chair doesn't harm your body."

According to a 2006 Today's Christian Woman article,1.5 percent of Americans engage in self-harming behavior. This jumps dramatically to 12 percent among college students (most self-injury begins in the teen years). Most self-harmers are female (60-70 percent), and many, although not all, struggle with eating disorders, too. I've not seen research on the incidence of self-harm among Christians compared with the general population, but my experience shows that this problem is far from rare within the church.

Some religion scholars have made intriguing, if not always convincing, links between the extreme pietism of some medieval religious mystics—such as Catherine of Siena, who died at age 33 after prolonged abstention from all food but the Eucharist—and modern day anorexics, bulimics, and self-injurers. The ascetic lifestyle practiced by some among both laity and clergy in the medieval church often included behaviors parallel to those of self-injurers today: self-flagellation, self-mutilation, and various forms of self-denial and regimented living. A reviewer of Caroline Walker Bynum's Holy Feast, Holy Fast notes of medieval women that "food and their own bodies were the only things women had control over and through that control they could manipulate their surroundings." If this sounds familiar, it's because this is the same language used to describe modern-day women—living in an ocean of overwhelming choices—who engage in self-punishing behaviors.

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I'm not surprised that self-punishing behaviors occur among Christians. And this is not to blame the church. For legalism—and I would argue that this is what these behaviors are at their core—comes in guises both religious and secular. The desire to control the destiny of a few moments, if not our lives, is a fact of the human condition. But it is a fact that directly opposes the gospel of grace. Indeed, our vain attempts to mete out our own justice and punishments and thus save ourselves merely reflect the universal human desire to be our own God. For those who self-harm, the gospel comes as an invitation to trust in the One who has enacted perfect and complete justice before God on our behalf, through his body, so we don't have to punish our own.