Teenage rape and murder.
These are all topics ripe for prestige television.
But a major subplot of HBO’s “Sharp Objects” — which is based on “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn’s debut novel of the same name and airs its finale Sunday — is one rarely covered in pop culture.
Cutting — or “self-harm.”
In the eight-episode series, Amy Adams plays a highly functional alcoholic newspaper reporter. She is assigned by her St. Louis Chronicle editor to travel to her tiny hometown of Wind Gap, Mo., where one teenage girl has been murdered and another has gone missing (and eventually will be found brutally slain).
The show is partly a whodunit mystery.
But it’s far more a character study as Adams’ Camille Preaker is forced to deal with her own myriad demons: the childhood death of her sister; being gang-raped as a teenager; and the constant reproach of her narcissistic, domineering, distant, unloving mother.
And a penchant for self-harm that has left much of her body — save her face and hands — covered in scars.
(Ever the writer, Camille’s scars are arranged in block letters carved to spell out words such as “dirt,” “bad” and “vanish.”)
Self-harm depicted in pop culture — such as in the TV movie “Secret Cutting” or the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” — typically focuses on adolescents or teens.
However, according to the British mental health advocacy group Mind, “the age when people first self-harm ranges from 4 years old to people in their 60s.” Indeed, the repercussions of Camille’s cutting are a daily presence in adulthood.
No matter why or when one self-harms, experts agree that it’s a physical manifestation of poor emotional coping skills.
“Self-harming is not an isolated behavior,” explains Jupiter psychologist Ali Mandelblatt. “Rather, it’s a component or symptom of deeper underlying issues.”
Loneliness, poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety, painful memories, PTSD — these and other mental health conditions can all be potential root causes of why a young person initially begins engaging in self-harm.
“A lot of times, younger people may not be able to verbally express what’s causing them pain — so self-harm gives them an outlet,” says Mandelblatt.
Self-harm can serve other purposes as well.
“Self-harming can provide a sense of being in control,” says Rhodena Mesadieu, a therapist with SoulSpring Counseling in Palm Beach Gardens. “Sometimes, self-harming numbs emotional pain; other times, when a person is numb or doesn’t feel anything at all, self-harming provides momentary feeling.”
The behavior also ranges from the secretive — as is the case for Camille — to one that is practiced in a peer group setting.
Both Mandelblatt and Mesadieu stress that self-harm — which singer Demi Lovato and actor Johnny Depp have admitted to engaging in — encompasses more than just cutting. Other forms include:
- Burning skin
- Picking or scratching skin
- Pulling hair from one’s scalp or arms
- Pulling out eyelashes
- Banging one’s head
- Starting fistfights with the intent to get injured
So, what are the physical warning signs that someone may be self-harming?
“Unexplained cuts, burns and bruises are obvious giveaways,” says Mandelblatt.
As is wearing concealing clothing at all times — even when it’s not appropriate, such as at a pool or the beach.
(Adams’ Camille wears long sleeves and long pants at all times — even remaining fully clothed when passion strikes with a would-be lover.)
Mesadieu notes that shying away from “hugging, touching or other physical contact” can be warning signs, too.
And parents should also be on the lookout for stray droplets of blood around their home.
It’s critical that those who self-harm receive psychological counseling, says Mandelblatt, because “left untreated the behavior often escalates.”
And that can be physically dangerous.
Bones can be broken.
Brains can be concussed.
Veins and arteries can be punctured.
Without professional intervention, the adolescent or teen self-harmer will likely graduate to other self-destructive behaviors such as alcohol/substance abuse, eating disorders and abusive relationships.
The producers of “Sharp Objects” know how potentially triggering the dramatic portrayals of cutting and substance abuse can be. Similar to the ending of each past episode, a full-screen public service announcement will air at the conclusion of Sunday night’s finale detailing where one can receive help.
“People who self-harm must not suffer in silence,” urges Mandelblatt. “There’s help — and hope — for recovery.”
SELF-HARM WARNING SIGNS
- Fresh cuts, scratches, bruises, scars or other wounds
- Excessive rubbing of an area to create a burn
- Keeping sharp objects accessible
- Wearing concealing clothing in inappropriate settings or climate conditions
- Deterioration of school and/or work performance
- Expressions of helplessness, hopelessness or worthlessness
- Isolating behavior
- Behavioral and emotional instability, impulsivity and unpredictability
HOW TO GET HELP
At the end of every episode of HBO’s “Sharp Objects,” the following full-screen public service announcement appears:
“If you or someone you know struggles with self-harm or substance abuse, please seek help by contacting the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 1-800-662-HELP (4357).”
In Palm Beach County, contact the Mental Health Association of Palm Beach County by calling 561-801-HELP (4357) or visiting mhapbc.org.