Given current national statistics, we can safely assume there are very few young people who haven’t known someone who has deliberately injured themselves by cutting, self-battery, overdosing or intentionally participating in risky behaviour. In 2015 the Australian Child and Adolescent Survey reported that approximately 10% of 12 – 17 year olds have self-harmed, with 8% self-harming within the last 12 months and 60% more than four times in that period. In addition, the Europe Case Study reports that 14.6% of young people have thoughts about self-harm which they have not acted upon.
Despite how widespread self-harm is and how normalised it has become in youth culture, it remains very difficult for many educators to fully understand. Many teachers secretly find themselves thinking, “They are just ruining their body”, “They need to toughen up”, “Everyone has issues”, or “They just want attention”. If you are a professional who just doesn’t “get it”, be assured that you are not alone. The issue of self-harm conjures up frustration in many adults and the default reaction is often shaming, blaming and criticising because we don’t know how else to handle it. It takes time, deliberate effort and often personal experience to understand self-harm. Adults who “get it” have usually made a concerted effort to do so. Those who don’t, limit their ability to be proactive in caring for young people.
To understand self-harm we have to understand the thinking behind it. It is the internal dialogue, rather than just the behaviour that educators need to respond to. In order to connect with a young person who is self-harming we need to connect with intense thoughts and feelings like, “I can’t cope anymore”, “I need to stop this feeling now” or “If I don’t rid of this feelings I am going to do something I really regret”, realising that they are at the core of 66% of self-harm.
Over the past 15 years I have repeatedly heard young people express either a cry of pain or a cry for help through self-harming behaviour. Both cries are valid requests for specific support. I have not always found self-harm to be linked to suicidal thoughts, but research does indicate that those who self-harm are at higher risk of suicidal idealisation. I have always found the reasons for self-harm wide, varied and very difficult for young people to express. Initial conversations are often crowded by secrecy and shame. For these reason, any response to self-harm has to be approached with genuine empathy, patience and care.
Many schools fear that if they talk about self-harm they will create more of it, but research tells us that the contributing factors to self-harm are mental health, impulsivity, family instability, abuse or trauma and negative body image, rather than open communication. That being said, any communication about self-harm is a very delicate business. I believe that every school can tackle self-harm proactively, without fear of any negative impact, by embedding it in a mental health curriculum that focusses on positive self-care, stress management and resilience. I also believe that a whole school approach which educates all staff in red flag behaviour and referral pathways, will go a long way in preventing self-harm in students.
– Michelle Mitchell, www.youthexcel.com.au