This researcher who studies self-injury explains why people do it. And why he did it.

What do you think of when you hear the words "self-injury?"

You probably think of a middle-class, teenage girl cutting herself to get attention. That's the cliché, and it's all kinds of wrong.


Meet Dr. Stephen Lewis.

He's been researching self-injury — we're most familiar with it as cutting or burning — for over 10 years.

A quick definition: Self-injury is intentional damage to body tissue (that doesn't include body modifications like piercings, tattoos, and scarification) without suicidal intent. And far more people are doing it than you'd think.

What he and other experts found might surprise you: Self-injury happens equally across gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic lines.

It's not just an issue in the U.S. either. Self-injury has emerged as a major global mental health concern.

Here's something else that might surprise you: Lewis isn't just an academic expert. He's a life expert. He lived it.

He used to self-injure, and he shared his experience with the world in his talk for TEDxGuelphU.

It took some soul-searching before Lewis decided to tell his story publicly. In the end, he told me, "I wanted to convey a sense of hope to those who presently struggle. I wanted them to know they are not alone and that recovery is possible."

"There is light at the end of the tunnel. As dark as it may seem, if you keep walking — you can find it," he says.

Like Lewis (and myself), 1 in 5 adolescents has engaged in self-injurious behavior at least once, and a quarter of them have done it repeatedly. It can start as young as age 12.

As Lewis put it, "Self-injury provided needed relief from that emotional turmoil I was feeling inside. It conveyed the words I could not."

It's an attempt to relieve overwhelming feelings of sadness, distress, or self-loathing. Most often, people do it to externalize inner pain, to make it tangible, or to stop feeling numb.

The relief that self-injury provides is only temporary, though, and it can develop an addictive quality: The longer it's used, the harder it is to stop (or to find another way to quell the pain).

There's also a tolerance factor: The more you self-injure, the shorter the period of relief. It makes for a cycle that's incredibly difficult to break.

So, how can we help stop the cycle of self-injury?

Whether you're someone who has self-injured or not, one of the most important things we can do is educate ourselves: The false cliches and stereotypes we carry around about self-injury affect those who do it, too.

When we characterize people who hurt themselves as crazy, manipulative, or attention-seeking, they're more inclined to feel ashamed and isolated. They live in fear of judgment, and that fear creates silence.

This silence means that many people feel hopeless and alone. While self-injury isn't, by definition, a suicidal behavior, it does elevate risk for suicide.

Without help, that silence and that hopelessness can be deadly.

Self-injury is a habit that's hard to break. One of the first steps toward ending the cycle is for us to allow the conversation to happen.

Four little words are all we need: "How can I help?"

That's what turned things around for Lewis:

"For me, this involved a willingness to not just ask for help, but to accept it —something I was not accustomed to. This help, for me, came from professionals. It came from friends, and it came from my family."

His story ends well. My story — as a fellow self-injurer — ends well, too. All of these stories can end well.

"Recovery is a process," said Lewis. "And not a linear one. I had good days and bad days, and on some bad days, I self injured again. But those bad days became fewer and farther between."

Nobody should suffer alone. We all have baggage, but we each bear the weight of our burdens differently.

We can help each other bear that weight if we're brave enough to listen and brave enough to start conversations that matter.

This is how we find better ways to heal. This is how we create hope for those who need it the most.

Watch Lewis' full talk:

Want more information on self-injury? Take a look at the Self-Injury Outreach and Support website.

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In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

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Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

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Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

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