A cry for help

30th November 2007 at 00:00
Schools are in danger of overlooking staff who self-harm as they focus on pupils hurting themselves. Here one teacher speaks candidly of her compulsion to cut.As teachers, we are often very good at dealing with other people's problems: we comfort distraught children, break up fights, offer our advice freely to colleagues, and suggest strategies for improving pupils' learning. However, we are often less equipped to deal with our own ills, and in a very stressful occupation, things can escalate to a level where you can't see a way out.

There are dozens of courses, training days, professional development seminars and buzz meetings about pupil grief, bereavement, stress, self-harming or suicide attempts, but courses to help teachers deal with their own issues are thin on the ground.

As a reformed self-harmer, I know the stresses that pupils and teachers find themselves under, and I know one destructive way they might deal with it. It is not always easy to recognise a self-harmer, because like many mental health problems (anorexia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic syndrome) the sufferer conceals their symptoms. And no two people will practise it for the same reasons: there is no such thing as an "average" self-harmer.

There are stories of teachers having to deal with pupils slashing their wrists or taking an overdose in the toilets, but it seems as if there is such a desperate focus on the pupils that staff often overlook colleagues who are crying out for help. Pupils are not the only ones in schools who self-harm.

I self-harmed from the age of 11 to 25. While I was a student, it was down to a mixture of bullying, exam stress, self-hatred and low self-esteem. And once I began teaching, it once again seemed the only way to deal with the stress of planning, deadlines and 80-hour weeks. It is a strange situation, which only now (10 years later) I am able to look at more objectively. Most well-adjusted people cannot comprehend why someone would want to hurt themselves, but in the heat of the moment it can seem like the only logical thing to do.

I self-harmed because I hated myself and felt that I was not only deserving of the initial pain, but also of the residual scars that I would have to endure for the rest of my life. I wanted to punish myself for being such a horrible, worthless person, and one way of doing that was to cut myself so that all the world would be able to see the truth about my value as a human being.

I generally favoured sharp instruments such as cleavers, broken glass and scalpels, and I would cut myself in prominent places such as arms and hands, but sometimes on the legs or torso, and one time my face. It is possible to inflict horrendous wounds to yourself with razor blades, and I once slashed both my arms and legs with a Stanley knife that cut over 1cm deep into my skin. The scars are like eight inch worms running down all four limbs, and they will always be noticeable.

Like many self-harmers, after cutting myself I would dress the wound. Sometimes I attended accident and emergency, though they were usually unsympathetic, and were less than diligent in their care of the wounds. My 1cm-deep cuts really required stitches, but all that I received was a dressing. Their attitudes were understandable, but at the point where one needs the most help (physically and mentally) one sometimes receives the least.

I have been on the receiving end of people calling me crazy or suicidal. But to associate self-harming with suicide can be a mistake. Many self-harmers never have any intention of killing themselves; in fact, lots - [myself included - can feel that it is only self-harming that allows them to carry on living. It is a way of releasing the pain and anguish and built-up tensions: some people deal with their emotional problems by hitting the bottle, others become violent, while people like me have a tendency to turn any anger in on themselves.

During my teenage years, I never thought I would make anything of myself, and I felt so alone. Now that I am a teacher, I see the same problems frequently in the children I teach. Lost, depressed, lonely adolescents are searching for a sense of belonging, but all too often they slip through the net because they aren't playing up in class, getting into fights and making a song and dance about their emotional problems. They are the children you never notice.

I was a bright but quiet teenager, who got good GCSE grades and stayed on in the sixth form to do my A-levels before going to university. I worked hard in school and I am certain that my teachers had not the slightest inkling about what I was doing behind closed doors. And while behavioural problems and learning difficulties are easy to spot, and most schools have complex policies on how to deal with them, other emotional problems can get brushed aside. Anorexia is becoming better understood, and teachers and parents are getting better at spotting the early signs. But self-harming still bubbles beneath the surface as something that remains taboo.

I used to hide my scars for fear of what people might say or think about me, and I still wear long sleeves for job interviews, parents' evenings, and when meeting people for the first time, but it's hard to know whether it is really necessary. I have worked at my current school for five years, and I wear short sleeves nearly every day. I am displaying at least 20 scars on my arms - some little white lines you'd barely notice, some glaringly obvious raised worms. But during all this time, no one has said a thing: not one sassy throwaway comment from a pupil, and not one concerned question from a colleague. It's hard to believe that the 1,000 people I come into contact with in my city school are too polite to mention it: I think people genuinely do not notice what is right in front of them.

Many self-harmers remain so for life. Indeed, although I consider myself to be reformed, I have still cut myself two or three times over the past decade, at emotionally stressful times, and much to my dismay, the same feeling of exhilaration and release still accompanies the cutting. Like an alcoholic, many reformed self-harmers still have to struggle to resist the urge - particularly at stressful times.

Self-harming is not restricted to rebellious teenagers, it is often not done for attention, and it is not something that people will just "grow out of". It is not necessarily indicative of insanity or mental instability, but the person does need help of some sort, often more than the school alone can provide. But the most important thing to remember about self-harming is that it is far more common than you think; there will probably be at least one pupil in every class who does it, and it will not be the person you expect it to be.

A couple of months ago I was talking to a friend and colleague about depression and dealing with grief, and I made a passing comment about my reformed ways (assuming she had long since realised what all those scars on my arms meant), but she looked at me in confusion. I had to spell it out for her. I asked her if it wasn't obvious what all the scars indicated. She said of course she'd noticed the scars, but I seemed like such a well-adjusted and "normal" person that it had never crossed her mind that I might have been a self-harmer.

I am sure that she is by no means the exception. If we can't spot a self-harmer when we see their scars every day, what chance have we got of spotting a pupil who might be doing it? The problem is far more widespread than it appears, and it is likely that we will never find out the true extent to which it occurs. We need to bring this problem out into the open and discuss it as freely as we now discuss safe sex and illegal drugs.

- One in 10 young people self-harm at some point in their teenage years

- An estimated 25,000 youngsters are admitted to hospital in the UK each year after deliberately harming themselves

- Two young people self-harm every hour in the UK.

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