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What is self-harm?

What is self-harm?

wordle image of words associated with self-harming behaviours e.g. cutting

It is believed that around one in twelve young people injure themselves intentionally at some point.  Tags from social media site Instagram feature up to half a million posts revealing what is self-harm, some of which are distressingly graphic. Self-harming can include cutting, over/under eating and drug or alcohol misuse.

Why do young people self-harm?

Self-harming and other maladaptive behaviours are often seen as a way of trying to cope with painful and confusing feelings.  When difficult or stressful events happen in someone’s life, these things build up until the young person feels they cannot cope anymore and this can often trigger self-harm.  Self-harm can also be a way of showing other people that something is wrong in their lives, although many young people do not disclose their self-harming to anyone.

How can self-harm be identified?

As young people often prefer not to disclose their self-harming, it is likely that these behaviours may be noticed in school or maybe when a young person attends a youth group e.g. Scouts or drama group.

There are several ways in which a teacher might discover that a pupil is self-harming. A teacher may witness it directly, or be informed of it by the pupil themselves or a friend. The pupil may even be in need of immediate medical attention. A pupil might self-disclose their own self-harm or a friend may disclose information. A pupil might alternatively disclose thoughts of self-harm directly or through a friend.

Knowing what is self-harm, the key signs and symptoms is vital as the signs are sometimes easy to miss. It is not uncommon for individuals who self-harm to offer stories which seem implausible or which may explain one, but not all, physical signs. If a pupil says they are not self-harming or evades the question, professionals can keep the door open by reminding them that they are always available to talk about anything, should they so wish. Best practice is to try to stay connected to the pupil and look for other opportunities to ask, particularly if there are continuing signs that suspicions may be correct.

As most self-harm is carried out secretly, it can be hard to notice that a young person is self-harming but some emotional and physical signs to look out for are:

  • Changes in clothing to cover parts of the body, e.g. wearing long sleeved tops
  • Reluctance to participate in previously enjoyed physical activities, particularly those that involve wearing shorts or swimsuits, for example
  • Changes in eating and/or sleeping habits
  • Changes in consumption of drugs/alcohol
  • Changes in levels of activity or mood
  • Increasing isolation from friends/family

Multi Agency Guidelines for Professionals Working with Children and Young People Who Self-Harm, January 2012 Wiltshire Pathways

So what can be done to help? The following are a couple of suggestions and guidelines for good practice. Always treat the child/young person with respect and compassion.

  • Avoid being judgemental: don’t say self-harmers are ‘bad’ or ‘attention-seeking’ but ask how they are feeling and what the self-harming is about.
  • Contact appropriate self-help groups and internet sites to access support and gain further insights such as Mind or Childline. Offer the young person the option to get in touch with any that seem particularly useful.
  • Remain connected to the pupil and available to them if needed.
  • Give them hope – let them know that things can get better for them.

Supporting someone who self-harms can be difficult. It can be hard to understand what is self-harm and why a young person would purposefully injure themselves. You may feel frustration, anger or helplessness if you find out one of your pupils self-harms. It is important that you get support from friends or colleagues to help you deal with your feelings and to enable you to support the young person to deal with the problems underlying the self-harming behaviours.

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