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Program addresses struggle with self-mutilation

Graphic January 18, 1998
Web posted at: 11:21 p.m. EDT (2321 GMT)

LEMONT, Illinois (CNN) -- They are teens who burn themselves with acid, cut themselves, bang their heads against walls or dig pens in their legs.

They are suffering from a condition psychiatrists call a trend of the 1990s -- self-mutilation. Their behavior is sometimes compared to anorexia or bulimia.

Karen Conterio has started what is considered the only program in the nation in Illinois designed to help self-abusers. It's called SAFE -- for "self-abuse finally ends."

CNN's Medical Correspondent Rhonda Rowland reports.
icon 2 min. 22 sec. VXtreme video

The treatment involves group and individual therapy and a lot of writing assignments to help sufferers discover what's triggering their behavior.

Sometimes medications are used. Conterio has no statistics to measure the success of her program. But many say it's a life saver.

Treatment and therapy can help stop the kind of self-mutilation like the acid burn on this girl's forearm  

One who says just that is a teen-ager named Abbie.

"I was so miserable. I was so unhappy and I just hated myself and hated what was happening to me," Abbie said. "I thought it was something I was going to do for the rest of my life. Now I don't feel that way anymore."

Conterio said the behavior usually begins in adolescence. Women were more likely to hurt themselves than men, but during adolescence boys are just as likely to hurt themselves as girls are. The profile tends to be white, female, middle-class and bright.

There are signs a parent can look for: unexplained, frequent injuries; wearing long pants and sleeves in warm weather, isolation and difficulty handling feelings.

Conterio said that self-mutilation is "a way in many ways to not feel what one is feeling, that there's such an intolerance it's almost like an attack (on) the thoughts, the feelings, that in order to stop that, they take it out on themselves."

Correspondent Rhonda Rowland contributed to this report

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