Self-harm is a coping mechanism and a call for help. It can also be extremely hard to talk about. That’s why Anchorage artist Donalen Rojas Bowers is using her art to call attention to this issue that affects youth and adults.
“If I didn’t start painting about my problems, if I didn’t start making art about things I’ve been through, I don’t think I would’ve been able to talk to anyone about this,” she said.
Bowers, who graduates from University of Alaska Anchorage this May, uses finely detailed watercolors and embroidery to explore her life journey. One of her recent embroidery pieces shows her arm covered in scars from cutting herself. The healed wounds are connected to felt butterflies fluttering away.
Bowers said she started cutting herself as a teenager when she was being emotionally and sexually abused by an online predator. He manipulated her and made her feel isolated and worthless. Her scars remind her of that time in her life and the lasting ramifications.
“It reminds me of a time in my life where I was so confused and felt so alone. I thought that my parents didn’t love me. I thought my sisters hated me,” she said, remembering her teenage years. “I was thinking that everything was bad in my life because of this one person telling me this stuff constantly, just whispering in my ear, telling me, ‘Your family’s bad. Your family’s bad. Your family’s bad.’”
Like many other young people, Bowers turned to self-harm as a way to manage her emotions and to feel in control.
“I think that a lot of times when I was self-harming, it wasn’t necessarily about trying to feel something. It was like I was upset and I wanted a way to express that in a way that felt substantial,” Bowers said.
“And it’s not like I didn’t feel anything. I was feeling sad. I was feeling stressed. I was feeling upset. But I wanted to feel some sort of release of something. I just wanted to feel like there was something else that I could control in my life.”
It’s hard to know exactly how many people harm themselves because it’s often done in private, and people don’t talk about it. Retired professor Janis Whitlock, who is a self-injury researcher at Cornell and a senior fellow at the Jed Foundation, said about one in five young people have injured themselves, though that number pre-dates the pandemic, and instances of self-injury have probably risen. About 6% of adults also harm themselves.
The behavior is complicated and can be hard to treat, Whitlock said, but people do it because they are trying to get their needs met.
“The fundamental impulse for self-injury is the desire to feel better. And that’s a really healthy, workable impulse. You can work with that,” she said.
Self-injury is just like using sex, substances or even food to try to manage our emotions and get to a better place, said Whitlock. It’s a universal experience to struggle with something and try to deal with it using the tools around us.
About 70% of people who start self-harming do it again, according to Whitlock, who has been researching the topic for nearly 20 years.
“It’s usually not every day or even every week,” she said. “It kind of goes in and out of phases for a number of years. And then it ebbs away through one means or another.”
Some people need therapeutic support but others don’t.
Talking about self-harm can be really hard because we all have visceral responses to it, and we automatically show fear or disgust, said Whitlock. That reaction can cause more harm than good. And just telling someone to stop won’t work either.
“One of the hardest messages I always have to give parents is that until your child really wants to stop, they’re not going to,” said Whitlock. “You cannot force it and it’s better to not waste your time on things that are going to become power struggles, because you will lose.”
Whitlock, who co-wrote a book about healing from self-harm, said that you should approach the topic with compassion and respectful curiosity. If someone is injuring themselves, ask them to help you understand why they do it.
Helping people heal and stop self-injuring is usually a family process. The research shows that when the primary caregivers also pursue therapy and dig into their issues alongside their children, the family as a whole comes out stronger and with deeper relationships.
Bowers doesn’t cut herself anymore, though she said she does still struggle with self-harm behaviors. But through her art, through therapy, and with support from her family, she’s healing.
“At this point, I don’t see my self-harm scars on my arm as something that is super painful, something that I need to hide. Something that I can’t talk about,” she said. “They’re a part of me. Something I lived through. I went through this, and I’m still here. Other people go through this, and they’re still here. We’re strong and it’s amazing.”
You can see Bowers’ piece about self-harm and other mental health focused art at Out North’s Mental Health Mosaics Art Show in downtown Anchorage throughout March and at a special event on March 19. You can hear more of Bower’s story and find more resources on self-harm on the Mental Health Mosaics podcast page.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health problems or having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, there are many resources to help. Careline Alaska is always available at 1-877-266-4357 (HELP). You can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
This story is part of an ongoing solutions journalism project at Alaska Public Media about destigmatizing mental health. The project is funded by a grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust but is editorially independent.