Self-worth counters self-harm

12th January 2007 at 00:00
Dame Maureen Brennan holds the door open for her pupils, just as she expects them to hold the door open for her. The head of Hillcrest community school, in Dudley, believes that such gestures of mutual respect are one of the most important ways of tackling self-harm and suicidal thoughts among pupils.

"You can't say, 'This week, we're learning about self-harm'," she says.

"Then next week we'll do pregnancy, and, the week after, contraception.

Instead, it's a theme running through the whole school: we treat each other with respect, and we respect ourselves."

The aim, she says, is to help pupils build up their resilience to external events. That way, they won't resort to destructive coping methods, such as self-harm.

"We want to make young people comfortable with themselves, make them like themselves," she says. "It's about getting them to see their own skills, seeing the positives instead of the negatives."

Sue Morris, educational psychologist at Birmingham university, works regularly with Hillcrest staff to help them address self-harm among pupils.

"If you notice scratches on a child, the first thing you might say is, 'Ooh, what have you done there? You look terrible'," Dame Maureen said. But Ms Morris suggests a more subtle approach.

In training, staff are provided with case studies. If they know the pupils being discussed, it brings the issue closer to home. They are taught to watch for signs of vulnerability. In such cases, it is advised that a teacher, pupil or lunchtime supervisor is recruited to keep an eye on the pupil concerned. Teachers also learn how to bring up a self-harm problem with parents.

"The more you develop teachers' confidence in self-harm as an issue, the more preventative it becomes," says Dame Maureen. "Mental health for children is an issue, and it needs to be addressed."

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