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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Macy's and Girls Inc. believe that all girls deserve to be safe, supported, and valued. However, racial disparities continue to exist for young people when it comes to education levels, employment, and opportunities for growth. Add to that the gender divide, and it's clear to see why it's important for girls of color to have access to mentors who can equip them with the tools needed to navigate gender, economic, and social barriers.

Anissa Rivera is one of those mentors. Rivera is a recent Program Manager at the Long Island affiliate of Girls Inc., a nonprofit focusing on the holistic development of girls ages 5-18. The goal of the organization is to provide a safe space for girls to develop long-lasting mentoring relationships and build the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to thrive now and as adults.

Rivera spent years of her career working within the themes of self and community empowerment with young people — encouraging them to tap into their full potential. Her passion for youth development and female empowerment eventually led her to Girls Inc., where she served as an agent of positive change helping to inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold.

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Inspiring young women from all backgrounds is why Macy's has continued to partner with Girls Inc. for the second year in a row. The partnership will support mentoring programming that offers girls career readiness, college preparation, financial literacy, and more. Last year, Macy's raised over $1.3M for Girls Inc. in support of this program along with their Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programming for more than 26,000 girls. Studies show that girls who participated are more likely than their peers to enjoy math and science, score higher on standardized math tests, and be more equipped for college and campus life.

Thanks to mentors like Rivera, girls across the country have the tools they need to excel in school and the confidence to change the world. With your help, we can give even more girls the opportunity to rise up. Throughout September 2021, customers can round up their in-store purchases or donate online to support Girls Inc. at Macys.com/MacysGives.

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Over the past six years, it feels like race relations have been on the decline in the U.S. We've lived through Donald Trump's appeals to America's racist underbelly. The nation has endured countless murders of unarmed Black people by police. We've also been bombarded with viral videos of people calling the police on people of color for simply going about their daily lives.

Earlier this year there was a series of incidents in which Asian-Americans were the targets of racist attacks inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Did you know that girls who are encouraged to discover and develop their strengths tend to be more likely to achieve their goals? It's true. The question, however, is how to encourage girls to develop self-confidence and grow up healthy, educated, and independent.

The answer lies in Girls Inc., a national nonprofit serving girls ages 5-18 in more than 350 cities across North America. Since first forming in 1864 to serve girls and young women who were experiencing upheaval in the aftermath of the Civil War, they've been on a mission to inspire girls to kick butt and step into leadership roles — today and in the future.

This is why Macy's has committed to partnering with Girls Inc. and making it easy to support their mission. In a national campaign running throughout September 2021, customers can round up their in-store purchases to the nearest dollar or donate online to support Girls Inc. and empower girls throughout the country.


Kaylin St. Victor, a senior at Brentwood High School in New York, is one of those girls. She became involved in the Long Island affiliate of Girls Inc. when she was in 9th grade, quickly becoming a role model for her peers.

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Within her first year in the organization, she bravely took on speaking opportunities and participated in several summer programs focused on advocacy, leadership, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). "The women that I met each have a story that inspires me to become a better person than I was yesterday," said St. Victor. She credits her time at Girls Inc. with making her stronger and more comfortable in her own skin — confidence that directly translates to high achievement in education and the workforce.

In 2020, Macy's helped raise $1.3 million in support of their STEM and college and career readiness programming for more than 26,000 girls. In fact, according to a recent study, Girls Inc. girls are significantly more likely than their peers to enjoy math and science, to be interested in STEM careers, and to perform better on standardized math tests.

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