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Why We Need to Talk About Self-Harm

There are many widely held beliefs about self-harm which are simply wrong. If we don't talk about it we can't educate young people (or older people) about self-harm. It is NOT a failed suicide attempt nor a method of attention seeking. In most instances, it's a coping mechanism.

I regularly teach school staff, pupils and parents about self-harm and one of the questions that comes up most is "If we talk about it, won't we be encouraging it?" - this is a widely held belief and my emphatic answer is a great big no.

Yes, you'll find that new cases of self-harm are brought to your attention but that's not because you've caused it - it's because these young people finally feel safe and supported enough to share concerns that they may have been keeping secret for weeks, months or even years.

Self-harming can feel very lonely

Self-harm can take all sorts of different forms, and many of the young people who are turning to self-harm can feel like they're the only person in the world who's ever done so. It's such a taboo topic that even though it affects more than one in 10 adolescents, many of those affected feel completely alone. And that's a horrible feeling. Feeling alone can exacerbate their underlying problems and also leave them feeling there is no one to turn to as they feel no one could possibly understand their behaviours.

Young people share their experiences of self-harm and the importance of seeking help:

We need to dispel the myths and stigma

There are many widely held beliefs about self-harm which are simply wrong. If we don't talk about it we can't educate young people (or older people) about self-harm. It is NOT a failed suicide attempt nor a method of attention seeking. In most instances, it's a coping mechanism. The myths surrounding self-harm lead to a massive stigma being attached to it as young people struggling with self-harm are often viewed in a very negative light - as selfish, difficult and weird. If we take the time to help people really understand why people self-harm and how many people it affects, we can change the mood from one of animosity and fear to one of support - which is exactly what these young people most need.

We can highlight sources of support

If we don't talk about self-harm then we miss the opportunity to highlight sources of support which is criminal as there is some fantastic support available via organisations like; the National Self-Harm Network and Young Minds. We can also make it clear that we are available to support young people and that they should talk to a trusted adult if they have concerns about themselves or a friend.

If we talk knowledgably, young people are more likely to ask us for help

When I surveyed 800 young people about their experiences of self-harm in school, 90% said they would not talk to an adult at school if they or a friend were self-harming because they didn't think school staff understood the problem and they would not react appropriately. Many of the 10% who would trust an adult at school said that they had been taught about self-harm and that their teachers clearly took the problem seriously and would neither just dismiss it as a phase nor over-react. They had also been told what the process would be if they were to talk to someone and this alleviated some of their anxieties too - being told that, yes, parents would need to be informed but that the student would be completely involved in the process, for instance, made them much more likely to confide in an adult at school.

Advice for professionals about starting the self-harm conversation

Be prepared for the fallout

If you do choose to talk to young people about self-harm then this is likely to trigger disclosures. You need to be prepared for this. A sound mental health policy is a good starting point. All staff need to know the procedure to follow if a young person confides in them and they also need to be prepared to listen and support no matter how difficult they might find the situation. Young people will confide in whoever they feel most comfortable with, whether this is the child protection officer or a teaching assistant - so everyone needs to know how to respond appropriately.

You shouldn't be alarmed at the increased incidence of self-harm that you're seeing, but rather feel encouraged that young people are finally feeling that they can be open and honest about their problems which will enable you to put appropriate support in place in order to help them find alternative coping mechanisms to self-harm.

We should exercise some care though...

Whilst I would encourage you to be open and honest in your teaching of self-harm there are a couple of guidelines you should follow in order to keep everybody safe. The first is that you shouldn't show graphic images of self-harm. These can be highly triggering to someone who is already self-harming and may exacerbate their self-harming. You should also avoid giving detailed descriptions of different ways in which people self-harm or implements they use etc as this can act as something of a how-to guide for young people who are already harming or at high risk of harming.

A final thing to bear in mind is that some of your staff body are likely to have been personally affected by issues of self-harm. You should recognise this and highlight sources of support - as well as ensuring that no one is expected to teach their students about self-harm unless they feel completely comfortable in doing so.

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Pooky is the Director of the Children, Young People & Schools Programme at the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust who provide free training to support staff working with young people to develop their ability to recognise and manage mental health issues.