By Rina Bajaj, Counselling Psychologist
In schools worldwide, educators and staff members play a critical role in promoting the well-being of students. One pressing concern that schools must address is self-harm among students. Self-harm is a complex issue that demands a sensitive and informed approach that takes account of your school’s culture and context.
What do we mean by self-harm?
Self-harm can take various forms, including cutting, burning, scratching, hitting, biting, or other methods of self-injury. Some individuals may also engage in behaviours like hair-pulling or ingesting harmful substances.
It can exist with and without suicidal intention, although the risk of accidental suicide can increase with self-harm. It is often a coping mechanism for overwhelming emotions, such as sadness, anger, anxiety, or frustration. It can provide temporary relief or a sense of control.
Recognising the signs and behaviours
This may not be an easy process, but schools can look out for the following:
- Hidden injuries: While some self-harm scars or injuries may be obvious, others may be well-hidden. Be aware of injuries in less visible areas, such as the thighs, abdomen, or the inner side of the arms.
- Unexplained cuts, burns, or bruises: Be vigilant about any unexplained injuries or marks on a student's body, particularly in easily concealed areas.
- Frequent use of covering clothing: Students who self-harm may consistently wear long sleeves or pants to hide their injuries, even in warm weather.
- Isolation and withdrawal: Self-harming individuals may withdraw from social activities, isolate themselves, or avoid changing clothes in front of others.
- Changes in mood and behaviour: Watch for sudden and significant changes in mood, such as increased irritability, depression, or anxiety. Self-harming individuals may also exhibit secrecy or emotional volatility.
- Evidence of self-harm tools: Be alert to the presence of objects like razors, scissors, or lighters in a student's belongings, which can be used for self-harm.
- Frequent use of excuses: Students who self-harm may offer frequent excuses for their injuries, such as clumsiness or accidents.
- Frequency: Self-harming behaviours may become repetitive, and multiple instances of self-injury may be present at different stages of healing.
- Secondary symptoms: Individuals who self-harm may also exhibit secondary symptoms like depression, social withdrawal, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, or declining academic performance. There can be a link to mental health needs such as low mood, anxiety or eating disorders.
- Increased isolation: Students who self-harm may isolate themselves from friends and family to conceal their behaviours. They may also avoid participating in activities they once enjoyed. Paying attention to changes in a student’s behaviour, attendance, or presentation is important.
Creating a supportive environment
A key role for schools is to create an empathic, open, safe, and supportive environment where students are heard, seen, and validated. There are several ways to do this. Schools can implement mental health awareness campaigns and programs encouraging students to seek help and support one another. Teaching stress-reduction techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and time-management skills can help students cope with stress.
It is also important to include all parts of the school community. Establish peer support groups or student-led initiatives where individuals who have experienced self-harm can share their stories and provide peer support. Regularly train school staff, including teachers, counsellors, and administrators, on recognising and responding to self-harm and mental health issues. Develop a crisis intervention team within the school that can respond swiftly to self-harm incidents and coordinate appropriate care. Please review and update school policies to ensure they support students' mental health and well-being. Policies should address bullying, harassment, and access to mental health services. Incorporate mental health education into the curriculum to give students the tools and knowledge they need to manage their emotional well-being.
Remember that addressing self-harm in schools is an ongoing process. Regularly assess and adapt your approach to ensure that students receive the necessary support and that the school environment remains safe and nurturing.
Responding to self-harm
How a school responds to self-harm is also crucial. Here are some tips for schools.
- Immediate support: If you suspect a student is engaging in self-harm or has visible injuries, offer immediate support and ensure their safety.
- Stay calm and non-judgmental: Approach the student empathetically and avoid reacting with shock or judgment. Express your concern for their well-being.
- Listen actively: Allow the student to talk about their feelings and experiences. Avoid offering immediate solutions; sometimes, active listening is the most valuable support.
- Involving parents and caregivers: Involving the student's parents or caregivers in the support process is essential. Maintain open communication while respecting the student's privacy and preferences.
- Safety plan: Collaborate with the student on a safety plan to help them manage self-harm urges and stay safe during difficult times. Include emergency contacts and coping strategies.
- Professional help: Encourage the student to seek professional help from a mental health therapist or counsellor experienced in self-harm and related issues. Provide information about available resources.
Identifying and addressing self-harm in schools requires a collective effort from educators, parents, caregivers, and mental health professionals. By fostering a supportive and understanding environment, schools can help students cope with emotional distress in healthier ways, ultimately promoting their well-being and academic success.
Remember, early intervention and open communication are key to addressing self-harm effectively.
New CIS Workshop:
Whole-school approaches to addressing & preventing self-harm & suicide
10–11 November 2023 at the CIS Office in Leiden, Netherlands.
Here are some additional resources:
- Self-harm: assessment, management and preventing recurrence (nice.org.uk)
- Preventing Child Self-Harm & Keep Them Safe | NSPCC SELF-HARM-DIGITAL-TOOLKIT-ESSEX.pdf (nspa.org.uk)
Rina Bajaj is a Counselling Psychologist with a doctorate from City University, London. She is Chartered with the British Psychological Society and is a Registered Practitioner Psychologist with the Health Professionals Council. She has been working within the field of mental health and well-being since 2004 and has varied experience with children, adolescents and adults. She is used to working with people from a diverse range of backgrounds and has worked within the NHS, statutory organisations, the corporate world and the voluntary sector. She is passionate about supporting people on their individual journeys and offers a tailor-made approach, following an initial assessment. Rina believes in fitting the therapy to the person, rather than the other way around so that therapy is accessible to people from all walks of life.
Whole-school approaches to addressing & preventing self-harm & suicide: 10–11 November at the CIS Office in Leiden, Netherlands. Register by 27 October 2023
CIS Member resources:
- Log into the CIS Community portal for briefings and resources related to mental health and well-being
- We need to talk about suicide and sudden death
- Complex questions: LGBTQ+ inclusive approaches to overnight school trips
- Ten legal questions to help leaders address safeguarding in their schools
- Tiny little thing
- Recognizing and addressing identity-based harm in schools
- Child protection
- Student well-being