During a Des Moines School Board meeting, Natasha Newcomb said she used to cut herself, a rare personal discussion of mental health by an elected official. Later, Newcomb said she wanted the student to know they were not alone. Special to the Register
Only three friends knew about Natasha Newcomb's past struggle with cutting, a form of self-injury often associated with teens.
But that changed after the Des Moines school board member spoke at a recent district meeting about how she identified with a student who was asking for the board's help.
"I'm going to get a little personal here," Newcomb said during the board meeting. "There's one particular case in here that brought up something very personal to myself, and that's cutting."
Her remarks — the first time Newcomb publicly acknowledged her battle with mental health issues — came in response to the student who'd shared, in confidential material to the school board, that she had engaged in cutting herself.
The student had asked to transfer from the district, citing her struggles with self-injury, but she was denied. At its Sept. 6 meeting, the school board voted 5-2 against granting the student's appeal. Newcomb voted in favor of the student.
The superintendent had recommended denying the appeal, citing Iowa's Code, which dictates that decisions are based on whether the district can accommodate the student's needs.
Newcomb's admission wasn't intended to influence the vote, she later told the Register.
"I felt that if students that came before the board were brave enough to mention it — even it if was confidential — then I should be brave enough to acknowledge it and say they're not alone," she said.
It was around 2007 when Newcomb first went into her bedroom and used a razor blade to cut thin slices into her thighs.
At the time, she thought, nobody would see. Nobody would know.
She was in her mid-20s, a single mother of a young child and a recent University of Iowa graduate. She was juggling parenthood with a job clerking at the Capitol and an ambition to make it in politics.
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Later, she enrolled in law school at Drake University, graduating in 2014.
But despite her outer success, inside, she felt like her life was spinning out of her control — and she craved relief.
Newcomb's not sure what prompted her to cut herself that first time. She had first heard about cutting years before, after a high school friend confided in her.
"I wondered how that would be, out of curiosity maybe," she said.
At the time, Newcomb said she felt overwhelmed by expectations.
"It was a trying experience for me, trying to be what everyone else wanted me to be," she said.
She battled negative thoughts, feeling like she wasn't accomplishing enough or wasn't good enough.
"You can be your own worst enemy," she said.
At its peak, Newcomb said she was cutting about every two weeks, gradually decreasing that rate as the years went on.
Mental health experts said that in more serious cases, people can cut themselves once a day or more. Some grow addicted, believing they need it to function.
For Newcomb, there was not a single event that triggered it, no pattern that she detected.
But she admits it was a stressful few years. In 2008, her brother was murdered in Philadelphia, a high-profile case covered by regional media.
He was an aspiring teacher who was slain for his iPod, and the case went unsolved for years. Only recently did the accused stand trial.
It's unusual for a politician to publicly discuss his or her mental health, so when it happens, it draws attention, said Dave Andersen, a political science professor at Iowa State University.
“Mental health is one of these big issues in the United States that most people are just uncomfortable talking about,” he said.
Yet most people either know someone who has struggled with mental health, or has struggled themselves.
Newcomb made a point at the board meeting to emphasize her admission, looking at the half-circle of board members as she spoke. The audience turned to her, watching intently.
"Not only do I know people that have cut, I myself have been a cutter, so I understand the impact, personally," Newcomb said. "For me, it was feeling a lack of not being able to control anything in my life."
She had prepared more remarks, making notes before the meeting and reviewing what she'd say. But in the moment she decided to keep it brief, speaking for just over a minute.
While a transfer may not resolve the student's underlying issues, she said, "at least they have that moment of feeling like they have some sort of control in their life."
It's estimated that more than 10,000 Iowa teens could be engaging in serious forms of self-injury such as cutting, according to mental health statistics and K-12 enrollment data.
The behavior can have multiple triggers, and may appear in children as young as third grade, affecting about 8 percent of students, according to a 2012 paper in Pediatrics.
Boys and girls may bang their head or pull their hair as children. As students grow older, they often turn to cutting and burning, which is more prevalent with young women.
In middle and high school, an estimated one in six teenagers has harmed himself or herself at least once, and one in 20 has caused self-harm in a persistent and serious way, according to Contemporary Pediatrics.
Many report feeling temporary relief from the act, followed by feelings of guilt or shame.
It's a "phantom solution" that fails to address the underlying problems, said Jeffrey Kerber, a UnityPoint program administrator and therapist.
Mental health, political and education experts applauded Newcomb's decision to publicly discuss cutting, calling it "heroic" and "courageous."
“There’s been a long history in our society of hiding mental health issues,” said Barb Ramos, chair of the education department at Simpson College. "It needs attention."
Newcomb said she hopes her story inspires conversations about mental health.
"I felt it was important, because it's a taboo situation," she said. "We just don't talk about it."
A danger of copycats
Experts warn of the contagious nature of self-injury such as cutting or burning.
It's why schools are advised not to hold assemblies or even discuss it in small groups, because it can spread through friends, grade levels and schools.
“They’re naturally curious, and they experiment with it,” said Richard Lieberman, a school psychologist who coordinated the suicide prevention unit for 25 years in Los Angeles Schools.
The behavior is often found among children or teens who have difficulty regulating their emotions, but it appears to diminish as students grow up. It's less common among adults, with only 5 percent engaging in self-harm.
“There’s a lot of shame involved. Many times these young people will go to great efforts to cover their wounds,” he said. “They pick places on the arms, the inside of the thighs and the abdomen because these are places that can be easily concealed.”
Newcomb doesn't cut anymore, but she won't say she's cured.
There's always the chance she could relapse, she said.
"It is still kind of part of me," she said.
She attributes her improvement to maturing — evolving how she views herself and her life.
While Newcomb never sought professional help, she'd advise others to do so, especially teens.
In some cases, self-injury is symptomatic of serious mental health issues and requires therapy or medication to address, said Kerber, the UnityPoint therapist.
Experts say talking to a family doctor or pediatrician is often a good first place to start, to determine whether a referral is needed. There are also school staffers who have been trained in how to engage students with self-injury concerns, including nurses, counselors, social workers and psychologists in Des Moines schools.
That includes involving parents and connecting students with the right support, said Laura Fefchak, the district’s social work service coordinator.
“What we don’t ever want to do is not address it,” she said. “Students engage in this type of behavior for a reason, and the earlier we’re able to discern why … the earlier we can support them.”
If someone is cutting
If you know someone who is cutting, experts say to take a nonjudgmental tone in asking questions.
"Respectful curiosity" is how Richard Lieberman, a school psychologist who ran the crisis line for Los Angeles Schools, describes it.
"The thing you don’t want to say to a kid, as a well-intentioned adult might do, is ‘Just stop doing that,'" he said.
Threatening to put students in the hospital or grounding them until they stop can also backfire.
“When you take away their last coping strategy is when they become at risk for suicide attempts,” he said.
Instead, experts say to seek out a professional who's been trained on how to assess the situation. In Des Moines Schools, for example, mental health professionals are trained in how to engage with students seeking help for the first time, said Laura Fefchak, the district’s social work service coordinator.
“We really want the opportunity to determine why the student is engaging in that behavior,” she said. “We want to make sure the parent is involved, and we want to guide people to resources that would be supportive.”