Ghost in the cloud of pain?

selhf harmI have been haunted by this story every single day since it came out in the Los Angeles Times. Yes, haunted, as in by a ghost.

That’s the question: Is there a religion ghost in this story? Here’s the top of this painful, vivid piece of writing:

The revelation was shocking enough. That a growing number of teenagers and young adults deliberately embed needles, paper clips or staples in their skin may have seemed unthinkable before an Ohio radiologist presented disturbing proof at a medical meeting. …

Even more disturbing than his X-rays and accompanying report, however, could be the size and pervasiveness of the trend from which it derives — self-injury. Cutting, burning and biting one’s body is a habit increasingly taken up by young people who find themselves simply unable to cope with stress. Embedding appears to represent a more extreme form of the disorder.

“We always saw a little bit of this, but it was in people already identified as having a psychiatric disorder,” says Janis Whitlock, a prominent researcher on self-injury at Cornell University. “What doesn’t seem to make much sense is why we’re seeing it so much in seemingly healthy kids.”

Experts who study the behavior say that 15% to 22% of all adolescents and
young adults have intentionally injured themselves at least once in their
lifetimes. One study of 94 girls, ages 10 to 14, found that 56% had hurt
themselves at least once.

I’ll spare you the bloody details.

Of course, I wouldn’t be asking this question if reporter Shari Roan and her editors had actually included a religious element in the report, if they had probed the sources of the pain that inspire this hellish behavior. So the religion angle is not there. Should it have been?

I would say that it did not have to be there. There is no hole in this story that has to be there, to cover the basic journalistic questions.

But am I the only one who senses the ghost?

If you are a Roman Catholic, an Orthodox Christian or part of another body that believes that a good God created a world that has is governed by natural law, you can argue that this kind of pain, these torn-up bodies and broken souls, has to have a source. For example: When teens go through a series of broken sexual — one-flesh, to be biblical — relationships, should we expect them to handle this better than grown-up adults? Yes, this is a religious question: Does sin have a cost?

But let’s not blame the kids, alone. Are the sins of the fathers and mothers visited upon the next generation? Is that part of the pain? I mean, face this:

The girls had inserted such things as metal staples, unfolded paper clips, glass shards, wood slivers, pencil lead, crayons and stones into their arms or legs. Ninety percent of those girls said they’d had thoughts of suicide or had attempted suicide previously. Forty percent said they were victims of sexual abuse.

Just asking. What do you think? Is there a ghost? Am I alone in sensing one?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Christopher Orr

    you can argue that this kind of pain, these torn-up bodies and broken souls, has to have a source.

    I think this is a slippery slope journalistically once you open up this question because most religions and spiritualities will point to religious and spiritual “sources’ for any and all behavior, good or bad. Should a Christian Science angle on health always be brought up? What of a Buddhist or Hindus POV on the ‘unreality’ of the issues covered in the news? Should suffering be covered as if it is simply a fact of life to be understood and transcended as in Buddhism? What of the Orthodox Christian understanding of the role of passions and ‘thoughts’ (logismoi)?

    It also treads on ground that always wants to tie religion, sex, mental illness, violence, etc. together. In the public square issues that do not have an overt or claimed religious connection should be left without them; such religious perspectives can be discussed within a person’s religious tradition.

  • Jerry

    believes that a good God created a world that has is governed by natural law, you can argue that this kind of pain, these torn-up bodies and broken souls, has to have a source.

    This point is a very good one. This question can and should be asked of all situations, but it does come into sharp relief with this report.

  • Amy

    In one sense EVERY story has a religious ghost in it, because all of creation is tainted by sin and all of reality is sustained by and owes obedience to God. So, does this story have a particular ghost in it…maybe not, except that God should be part of every story.

  • Margaret

    There is a ghost. This story alludes to a lot of research that has been done, and to areas where research is lacking. One of those areas lacking would appear to be what role is religion playing in the lives of people who inflict such injury on themselves.

  • asha vere

    I’m going to go with what Amy said: every story has the ghost of religion in it if you think deeply enough about it, but I definitely would agree with what you said about the ghost in this story not really needing to be explored.

  • Chris Bolinger

    The experts cited in the article are:
    * A prominent researcher on self-injury at Cornell University
    * A therapist in Illinois
    * A consultant with an organization that focuses on traumatic stress
    * The CEO of a treatment center in Naperville
    * An assistant professor of psychology at Stony Brook University
    * A radiologist

    That’s not a bad set of experts, but the only one on the “front lines” of interacting directly with cutters and self-mutilators probably is the therapist. It would have been nice to get the perspective of others on the front lines, including youth workers, as well as some youth. By the way, cutting is not uncommon among Christian teens.

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  • Dave

    Some Christians, and others, practice self-inflicted pain in the name of holiness. What these kids do to themselves resembles that superficially. If one is willing to say that that low self-esteem actually underlies the religious practice, maybe there is a ghost here.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Dave, the teens with whom I have worked do not cut themselves in the name of holiness or for any other religious reasons. Having some interviews with teens who cut or those who interact with them regularly would have improved the article, but it wasn’t a bad article.

  • Dave

    Chris, I wasn’t saying that teen who cut themselves have a religious motive. I was saying that if low self-esteem actually underlies the motives of those who hurt themselves for ostensibly religious reasons, this story might have a religious ghost.

    You won’t confirm or deny this suggestion by talking to the teens. You would need to talk to the penitentes and the Opus Dei folks.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Title of the article: Self-injury on the rise among young people

    Very few young people hurt themselves for ostensibly religious reasons. I agree with Amy (#3) in her assessment of what type of religious ghost, if any, exists in this story.

  • Dave

    Chris, your comments on my comment make a basic error in simple logic, which I’ve already outlined. I can explain it to you (and have) but I can’t understand it for you.