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I Didn't Learn This in College...

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

I vividly remember the first time I encountered a young person who was engaging in self-harm or NSSI. As a fairly “unseasoned” special education teacher, I was horrified and quite panicked over what I had come across. A young, seemingly happy and popular student, gave me my first glimpse of the face of mental illness. All of my pre-service teacher training and life experiences up until that point led me to believe that mental health issues were easily definable and identifiable. While I had much training on identifying and supporting students with developmental and cognitive disabilities, I couldn’t look to my college preparatory classes in this situation. So many questions ran through my mind--why would this social and pleasant 9th grader hurt herself so badly that her shirt was sticking to the self-inflicted wounds on her arm? What could have brought her to the place of wanting to create such pain for herself? Why hasn’t she asked for help? But the biggest question in my mind could I help her? Instead of calling in the troops in a way that I knew would send this hurting girl into a greater place of despair, I listened to her story. I remember holding back the tears as she described her emotional and often physical pain to me as we sat in my empty classroom that would soon be flooded with teenagers. I felt a sense of urgency to help her even though this had obviously been her reality for a long time. Concerned about the wounds on her arm from that morning, she agreed to go to the nurse to get them cleaned and cared for---knowing this would prompt a call home and further investigation, I offered to go along with her and even talk to her mom with her if she thought it would help. She declined my offer and politely thanked me for listening to her. I made a referral to the Student Assistance Program on her behalf offering my concerns, and my heart hurt for her each time I’d see her. I’d often check in with her and her response was usually, “I’m ok, thanks for asking.” As time passed, there were more and more students to come across my classroom, who engaged in self-harming behavior. A girl that would pick her skin around her nails to the point of raw-ness because she struggled with carrying the burden of her mom’s drug abuse and alcoholism. A boy who had such extreme anxiety and history of trauma that he exercised 3-4 hours a day and struggled to leave his house to come to school because of the fear he experienced. Another young lady who pulled her hair out (trichotillomania) and cut as a means to cope with her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Unfortunately, the list goes on and each year that passed made me feel less and less equipped to help these students. After 15 years in the classroom, I decided to change my career path to study to become a counselor, I felt like I wanted to be able to greater help students who were struggling with this and other mental health issues. I remember studying self-harm in my master’s program and hearing it described by my professors, answered so many of the questions that I had regarding why a young person would engage in it. However unhealthy self-harm appears to mentally well individuals, it is a coping skill that some people use when they lack healthy ones to deal with extreme emotional distress. The key is to find, teach and practice healthy coping skills to youth who are engaging in self-harm. Developing trusting relationships with students can help them feel more comfortable talking to adults about their mental health. Many teachers feel helpless like I did and unequipped to help students who may be struggling with self-harm as a result of an underlying mental health issue. The possibility that you may have a student in your classroom who is self-harming is unfortunately fairly likely. According to the PA Youth Survey (2017), of the over 4,800 middle and high school students in Westmoreland County who participated, 12.5% shared that they engaged in self-harm (e.g. cutting, scraping, burning) in the past 12 months (that’s over 600 students surveyed). When I read this stat along with other ones about teens in our county, I realized we ALL must be a part of the solution. As educators, it’s not our role to treat and diagnose mental health issues, but we can be observers, supporters and sometimes reporters to get students the help that they need. Here are some things you can do as an educator if you come across a student who is engaging in self-harm…

If you believe that a student is self-harming, let them know that you want to aid them in getting the help they need. It is most important to be empathic with the student. They most likely already feel ashamed and helpless. Saying something like, “It looks like you have hurt yourself, I’m here if you want to talk about it,” can let the student know you care, they are not alone, and even if they deny self-harming, they may see you as a trusted adult.

Do not punish or promise confidentiality. Self-harm is serious and should not be ignored, however, giving the student the option to talk to their parents before you do allows the student to have a greater measure of control over the situation. If the student refuses to tell their parents, then it would be up to you to follow the protocol set forth by the school.

~ For help with developing a protocol addressing self-harm in your school, check out this guide developed by the Cornell Research Program:

For more information on how to support students who self-harm at school, check out “A Do and Don’t List for Non-Suicidal Self Injury (NSSI) in schools”:

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