Confronting the Pain

Non-profit, "To Write Love on Her Arms", Tackles Self-Injury

There was something a friend said to me years ago. I was going through some tough circumstances, and ended up breaking down and crying at lunch one day. I felt embarrassed and apologized, but he stopped me and said, "Hey, I want you to know I'm not afraid of your pain." That statement struck me and really stayed with me. I feel that it's something people need to hear... and even more than hear it; we need to see it. --Jamie Tworkowski, To Write Love on Her Arms

Jamie Tworkowski is working hard to raise awareness of self-injury. In just five short years, Tworkowski has grown his nonprofit from a fledgling organization to a worldwide movement. Since its start in 2006, To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA) has donated more than $850,000 to self-injury treatment and recovery. 

We recently had a chance to talk with Tworkowski and get the latest from the frontline of the battle against self-injury and depression.

"One of the biggest things I’ve learned about self-injury is that it's a symptom of a bigger problem," says Tworkowski. "I think a lot of people, when it comes to self-injury, don't understand the action or the expression. But when you get down to the root of the problem, it's no different than depression. [Self-injury] is just people trying to cope with their pain."

If you don't fully understand self-injury, you’re not alone. Like other mental health issues, self-injury is often plagued with misconceptions and stigma. Often, people mistakenly believe if an injury isn't "that bad," the problem isn't serious. But it is impossible to judge a person's mental distress by the severity of a self-inflicted wound. People who self-injure are also often dismissed as being attention seekers, when in fact most try to hide their wounds and scars. They may need attention, but they aren’t hurting themselves for attention.

"Self-injury does sometimes appear with people who wish they could erase something or take something back or feel clean," says Tworkowski. "There's often a deep sense of regret. For my friend Renee, those feelings were definitely present. She felt like a failure and self-injury was a way she tried to cope with that."

Those who struggle with the condition come from all walks of life: male or female, rich or poor, early adolescence to advanced age. Data from the 2007 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicated that 17% of high school students and 16% of middle school students reported having self-injured during the past year. 

Tworkowski says, "Kids often feel like they're alone in whatever it is that they're going through and are scared to talk about it. TWLOHA believes so much in professional help and community support. If someone can share problems with a friend, it's easier to move forward and talk to a counselor or someone experienced with crisis intervention. It’s important to talk about the issue to make it easier for those struggling to come forward."

TWLOHA strives to bridge the gap between treatment facilities and those in need by promoting their help-seeking message through music festivals, speaking tours, social media sites, schools and universities. This week, TWLOHA will be promoting their message at the SXSW film and music festival in Austin, Texas. 

© 2010 Screening for Mental Health, Inc.