America’s Next Teen-Mental-Health Panic? Self-Embedding!

Grenade embedded in forehead. Vietnam war-era X-ray from the Otis Historical Archives Nat'l Museum of Health & Medicine.

CNN has a fairly level-headed post by Elizabeth Landau on something called self-embedding behavior, in which “teens” shove things under their skin.

Not to be confused with subincision, a body modification done in, like, a tattoo parlor, or, say, pacemakers, which are considered totally normal because old people get them, this is a pathological behavior that runs roughly parallel to self-injury or “cutting,” a far more common practice. Another treatment of the subject interviewing the same doctor is at Cryptozoology-Paranormal blog Our Strange World, with one of the creepiest doctor photos I’ve ever seen in my life.

The CNN article references a study in Radiology — one I couldn’t find in a quick scan of the current Radiology TOC — as follows:

Metal. Plastic. Crayon. These are just some of the materials that teenagers have used to injure themselves by puncturing their skin with objects, or putting objects into the wound after cutting. This is called self-embedding behavior, and some teens do it as a way of coping with tough times.

A new study in the journal Radiology found that 11 patients aged 14 to 18 engaged in this behavior out of 600 patients who had received treatment for removing foreign objects embedded in soft tissue.

To its credit, the article itself doesn’t claim that this behavior is “on the rise” or anything almost certainly spurious like that (at least based on the presented data).

But….11 patients? Let me repeat: ELEVEN PATIENTS????? Does that warrant a lead that says “teenagers” do this behavior?

While grammatically correct, sure, it follows a headline of “Teens self-mutilate, embed objects in skin.” Furthermore, the piece is actually essentially a distillation of a much more elaborate article in Time, in which the following assertion is made:

…[A] Chicago Tribune reporter uncovered two more instances of self-embedding in an Illinois town — two teen girls had deliberately inserted pencils into their skin and broken off the tips — lending credence to the possibility that self-embedding was a growing trend, albeit off the radar. “We know it’s elsewhere,” says Shiels, who is creating a protected database for medical professionals worldwide to track the behavior. “It just hasn’t been discussed and it hasn’t been studied.”

The Dr. Shiels mentioned is Dr. William Shiels II, Chicago’s Nationwide Hospital’s Chief of Radiology. He’s the really, really creepy looking one in the Our Strange World photo.

I’m going to assume that Dr. Shiels would not have risen to be Chief of Radiology of a major Chicago hospital if he was a hysterical nut-job who ran around screaming “The Sky Is Falling!!! Teens are stabbing themselves!” all the time, so I’m going to figure he’s been quoted out of context by Time to support their need for a jacked-up, meth-snorting, steroid-shooting shotgun-armed stolen-Chevy-Nova-driving bank robber of a headline: “Teens’ Latest Self-Injury Fad: Self-Embedding.”

Shiels’s team of radiologists from Nationwide didn’t just find objects embedded in 11 patients. They found objects embedded in 11 patients out of 505. I’ll concede that it would be a very reasonable assumption that other hospitals might have similar numbers — but that’s what it is. A “reasonable assumption.”

I’ll blame Time for the desperate need to foment hysteria over teens’ self-destructive behavior — since the CNN piece smooths out the edges quite significantly. But this kind of ludicrous assertion of “novelty” behavior as a new and newsworthy form of self-destruction on the part of American teens — and, more importantly, as a “Fad,” does two things that are utterly offensive and all too common. It pathologizes “teens” as a group of aliens, and it diverts focus from the much more common practice of general self-injury.

A kid sticking a pencil lead under her skin may make it more effective Tragedy Tourism for the media, but crowing for attention with headlines like “Teens’ Latest Self-Injury Fad” promotes the news value of certain self-injury behaviors because they’re more freaky to read about. Every parent of a teenager reading that headline feels a nut-punch that they shouldn’t have gotten — because in no way do the available data suggest the usual moral panic cliches of this behavior being “on the rise” or “common.” Irresponsible headlines like that amount to the indiscriminate torture of readers. And it adds up to more distance, not less, between parents and teens.

One last extremely cranky note: the Time article links to an earlier photo gallery of “Photos of Self-Injury in Japan.” The photos are not “photos of self-injury” — they’re bizarre and self-consciously arty obfuscations that descend into self-parody by their very inexpressiveness; however, the esthetics of their presentation in Time strikes me as the most racist, Japanophobic, sexist, condescending thing I’ve seen in years.

I used to read every issue of Time religiously. I haven’t haven’t read it for years. Apparently it’s been smoking crack while I was gone.

Possibly related posts:

2 comments on “America’s Next Teen-Mental-Health Panic? Self-Embedding!
  1. Pingback: America’s Next Teen Mental Health Panic? Self-Embedding! « Skid Roche

  2. Pingback: Rain-Soaked Latte Zombies Called Out by Smog-Choked Double Espresso Vampires | techyum ::

Comments are closed.