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The UK is seeing a rise in self-harm among students. So what can teachers do to tackle this?


NHS figures published by The Guardian show that self-harm among students has increased dramatically in the past 10 years. There has been a steep rise in students under 18 being admitted to hospital for harming themselves.

The report further states that poisoning accounts for 88% of self-harming incidents, with figures rising from 9,741 in 2005-06 to 13,583 in 2015-2016 among girls and from 2,234 to 2,246 among boys.

Furthermore, an article in The Independent highlighted the results of a survey jointly conducted by the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Children’s Bureau. It revealed that nearly 79% of schools reported an upsurge of self-harming and suicidal tendencies among pupils.

In the face of such frightening statistics, how can teachers respond to self-harming incidents in a helpful and empowering manner?

1. Allow students to confide in you

When teachers suspect or identify that a pupil is self-harming, confronting them immediately is not the best way. They may refuse to accept your help or to acknowledge that they have such tendencies. It is better to foster an environment of trust where pupils will naturally come to you to talk about any issues they might be facing.

If students refuse to discuss their issues, the best you can do is let them know that you are there for them and offer them a chance to talk when they feel ready. Students who self-harm are more likely to confide in teachers who show sympathy and understanding and are not judgmental.

2. Informing parents

A student may not like the idea of teachers informing their parents. Though this decision should be respected, there are cases where teachers must involve parents. Such conversations are never easy, as it is very hard to tell parents that their child is harming themselves. By addressing parents directly, in a calm and thoughtful manner, free from accusations or criticism, this difficult situation can be managed in a sensitive way.

3. Create peer support groups

Young people will naturally confide in their peers more than in parents or teachers. The premise of a peer support scheme is that young people are qualitatively different from adults a generation or more apart from them. As teachers and parents, we imagine that we know the world that they live in, but discover that we cannot enter their experience any more than we can appreciate their music or fashion. There are issues and concerns that are common experience for young people, just as their experience of life in school, in the corridors, in the playground may be quite different from how the adults see it.

Peer Support provides an additional, largely informal, layer of help and support in the school. It is also about mental health – fostering the abilities and resilience of all, and preventing students’ coping abilities from being devastated by stresses in their environment. Peer support can also help them take advantage of their strengths and be compassionate toward themselves. Support groups can reverse self-destructive behaviours by identifying students’ weaknesses, capitalising on their strengths and improving their leadership skills.

4. Help them find new coping strategies

Self-harm may be a way for students to cope with emotional distress. However, teachers can help them find or develop alternative mechanisms for coping. Encourage students to respond differently when they feel like hurting themselves – maybe start a journal in which they express their feelings, make them write down their negative thoughts and then tell them to tear that paper up, or listen to calming music.

5. Make referrals

While teachers play an important role in ensuring student wellbeing, self-harming tendencies cannot be tackled by schools alone. Students should, in the first instance, be referred to a school counsellor if you have one. Depending on their assessment, they might then be referred to off-site professionals. This assessment takes into consideration the risk level of physical injury, suicide and the presence of any mental health disorder.

Research has found a direct link between self-harming behaviour and students’ use of the internet. And with an increased dependence on the internet, it is essential to implement cyber safety measures. If you would like to learn more about Peer Support or about cyber safety, get in touch with Securus today.

Greg Johnson
Greg Johnson

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