When a pupil tells you they self-harm: listen

1st April 2016 at 00:00
Talking to a teacher can be an important stage on the road to recovery. One support worker shares her own story and gives advice on how to respond

I am telling my story in the hope that it will give people working in and with schools ideas for how to help if someone confides in them about their self-harm. I have self-harmed on and off since I was 16; I’m 29 now. I actually feel that everyone self-harms in some way, whether by drinking too much wine, smoking or overworking. There are so many ways to harm yourself: the spectrum runs from nail-biting to cutting and more.

If you remember when you were 16 and the amount of stress put on you by schoolwork, family life, figuring out who you were – that’s a lot for anyone to cope with. If you develop certain coping strategies, such as going for a run or overeating or overworking, then your self-harm won’t be so destructive. If, however, your coping strategy is cutting, burning or overdosing, that’s where problems can arise and lives may even be at risk – even though suicide is not usually the intention.

I remember that the first time I self-harmed, I was angry. I was never good at expressing anger and was scared to show it, so thought it better to take it out on myself rather than doing something like wrecking a room. I self-harmed for about a year at school and no one knew. I kept it hidden, kept the face on.

It’s hard to tell someone you are harming yourself. If I can give one piece of advice to anyone who thinks a child or colleague is self-harming or struggling in some way, it would be to open the door for that person to talk about things. How you respond to someone telling you about their self-harm is very important, because it can determine how they go forward – whether they ask for help and are able to accept help.

If you respond negatively – whether by dismissing someone’s worries or going too far the other way and overreacting – it will not help the person to open up. Show concern and be honest. If it’s a student disclosing their self-harm, you cannot keep that to yourself, but don’t hide that fact – trust is so important. That they have chosen to tell you about their struggles shows how much they trust you.

It’s also very important to have the right level of support. I knew when I was at school that teachers were hard-working; since becoming an adult I have even more respect for teachers than I had back then. The amount of work that people in education do is so underestimated – then add in the pressure of how to support people who self-harm and struggle with their mental health.

Safe place to talk

Teachers need to know that there is a safe place to talk about how they are coping with their efforts to support kids and colleagues who have problems. Guidance teachers within schools – and their equivalents in colleges and universities – need the right training in how to support mental wellbeing overall, not just to advise pupils who self-harm.

Self-harm is a coping mechanism (not the best one and not one I would advocate) that may work in the short term, but not the long term. Learning about dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) has helped me massively and I feel parts of it should be taught to everyone. DBT is like cognitive behavioural therapy but more outward-looking, focusing not only on your own actions but also on those of others. It taught me about mindfulness, how useful all emotions are, how to interact and get my needs meet without harming myself, and how to find new coping mechanisms.

Have you ever heard of a safety box or distress-tolerance box? This is somewhere to keep positive things that help you to cope when life is difficult – a bit like a memory box. I have three boxes: two big ones that I keep in my house and a travel-sized one. I also have books filled with positive quotes and pictures of my family and friends.

The list of stuff that can help when you’re in the dark moment of feeling the urge to self-harm is endless. It develops as you grow and change in your journey of recovery. I would always say never to throw any idea or suggestion in the bin, because even if it doesn’t work at one point in your life, it might help at another. So I used to only really have cross-stitch as a distraction; now I use much more, like colouring books and mindfulness.

My main message is to keep going with the good work that you are doing, and be open to being approached by someone who is ready to receive help and start talking about things. Feel honoured that they have chosen to confide in you that they are struggling.

Sometimes it’s difficult to hear that someone is struggling and harming themselves; it can be even harder if you have struggled with your own mental health. That’s why it is so important that you have the right support in your work.

Another crucial point is that self-harm is not about suicide – they are two completely different things. For most people, self-harm is a way of keeping safe from suicide. People often think that those who self-harm are automatically suicidal, but most people don’t want to die. They want to live and they find that self-harm helps in the process of living.

I hope that this has helped you to understand self-harm a little more, and what it is like to open up to someone about it. For more information on this subject, I would recommend the websites of Samaritans, National Self Harm Network, MoodCafé, See Me Scotland, Penumbra and Mind’s Well.

Good luck, and thanks for all the support you give young people. So often, it is the kindness and patience of one teacher that helps a self-harming pupil to turn their life around.

Nikki Byrne is a peer support worker for Penumbra’s Fife Self-Harm Project. Last month she addressed a national schools and mental health conference in Stirling, organised by the Enquire advice service

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