Cutting among Native American youth a growing problem
Bismarck, SD — Cutting, or self-harm, is practiced by people of all ages and races, but anecdotal evidence suggests that cutting is becoming more prevalent among Native American youth.
“It’s a behavior that’s growing,” said Cheryl Kary, the director of Sacred Pipe Resource Center, a small nonprofit in Mandan that works with Native Americans and non-Native American service providers in the area.
On Friday, the organization held an event to discuss a Native American perspective on cutting, which is part of a year-long “cultural competency” series on wide-ranging topics.
Nearly 30 social workers, teachers, principals, school counselors and a police officer attended the event, which discussed the historical context of cutting among Native Americans, why people self-injure and what health professionals can do to intervene.
Linda Stenberg, who’s worked as a middle school and high school counselor for the McLaughlin Public School District for 16 years, said she’s noticed an increase in students of all ages who are cutting, a majority of whom are Native American.
It’s hard to understand how many people are cutting, said Kary, pointing out the difficulty in tracking people who are doing it.
Self-injury can stem from a history of physical or sexual abuse. According to data from the Sacred Pipe Resource Center, a high number of Native Americans of all ages in the Bismarck-Mandan area have experienced sexual assault and domestic violence in their lifetimes.
Rape and sexual assault rates were “astronomical,” Kary said.
“It was really alarming,” she said. “They tell a story about how much grief and trauma is in our community.”
Cutting was once practiced by Lakota, Dakota and other tribes as a way to demonstrate grief and help people deal with trauma or loss, said Kary, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Traditionally, cutting was a socially acceptable coping mechanism in Native American communities. Tribal members would gather in groups to cut their hair, and in some cases their fingertips, to mourn the loss of a loved one.
“It was done in a very ceremonial manner,” Kary said. “It wasn’t viewed as a bad thing to do; it was a way of honoring.”
Cutting is no longer viewed as a healthy way of grieving in these communities and, instead, is practiced as an unhealthy coping mechanism.
Cutting itself doesn’t heal any pain or trauma, it just eases it temporarily, Kary said.
Many Native Americans suppress grief and trauma, which can result in forming bad habits, such as cutting.
Kary and her mother Marilyn Kary, a licensed social worker at the Community Grant High School in Fort Yates, presented ways social workers, counselors and others who work with Native American youth can intervene.
It’s important for youth to understand why they cut and understand it comes from trauma, grief and other strong feelings, Kary said.
It’s also important for them to understand these feelings are nothing to feel bad about, she said.
Health professionals can encourage youth to express their feelings vocally and offer healthy alternatives to cutting, including crying or wailing, physical activity, talking with older relatives and “iya,” when a person is advised to develop a positive habit while grieving.
“There are traditional grieving mechanisms that we can call back into practice and tell our youth to do,” Kary said.
This story was originally published in the Bismarck Tribune. It was republished with permission by the Native Health News Alliance.