Teachers – (the information in this section is based on the help I received from my teachers during my struggle)
“As her teacher I felt a lot of responsibility. I spent most days with her and wanted to make the most of this by gaining her trust and building a relationship with her so that I was approachable. Yet I felt out of my depth and needed to know more about it before I felt confident in steering her towards recovery. I think knowledge and sensitivity are key when it comes to this issue.”
My Suggested Action Plan
If you discover a pupil is self-harming don’t immediately confront them with it. It’s wiser to build up a relationship with them and encourage them to talk about any problems they’re experiencing. Teachers can play an important role in helping someone to problem solve, which ultimately will steer them towards recovery.
Help reduce any unnecessary academic pressure and help them to manage their workload. My tutor was particularly helpful and made space in my timetable so that I didn’t feel overloaded. She also asked other teachers to limit some of my workload without revealing too much about the reasons behind why I was struggling.
Be flexible with the timetable, in terms of both academic and sporting commitments and make some spaces where possible to accommodate doctor’s appointments, counselling sessions or just personal time away from school/college.
Avoid discussing it in the staff room as keeping privacy is very important. For a sufferer, gaining someone’s trust and confiding in them is the first step on the road to recovery, so don’t compromise your relationship with them by discussing it openly.
Respect the person’s wishes but be aware that you may need to consider having a conversation with their parents in a tactful and relaxed way without any accusation. The parents may already be aware and will most likely really appreciate your support. Whether they’re aware or not, being told by someone outside of the family that their child is harming themselves, is difficult for any parent to hear. Ensure that you discuss it calmly with them, communicating that you are there to help in any way. It might be a good idea to suggest talking with them directly, but again approach the conversation without any judgement or criticism and discuss ways to help their child and them as a family.
Trevor Allinson, Head of English, and Helen Hooper, Head of Sixth Form and Pastoral Care, both from Cheltenham, answer some frequently asked questions that cover some of the challenges teachers face while supporting students struggling with self-harm.
If you noticed or suspected that a student was self-harming, how would you deal with this?
Trevor: “If you notice it is generally because the student wants you to, but my experience tells me that this doesn’t necessarily mean they will all respond in the same way when you bring it up. I have tended to let them know that I know and offer a chance to discuss it if they feel comfortable. There are of course child protection issues and it is important to be honest with them and explain that this is probably not something that can be kept secret.”
Helen: “I would talk to the student in a calm manner, offering them help. I would take them to the privacy of my room to talk further.”
What do you think are the most common concerns teachers face when approaching this subject?
Trevor: “The majority of teachers will have absolutely no frame of reference and consequently be uncertain as to how to respond. I suspect they might worry that if they do the wrong thing it might harm the student in some way.”
Helen: “That the teachers themselves do not know enough about the subject, that they can’t understand why the child would do this. There is on the whole a lack of empathy and almost an embarrassment for many teachers when talking to pupils on a one-to-one basis about this.”
Have you had experience of discussing a student’s self-harming with their parents? If so, how did you approach the situation?
Trevor: “Only once as a teacher, a young male student. It was frustrating because the father simply refused to accept that it was an on-going problem and the mother concurred. I tried to talk to the father, but to no avail, so all I could do was ensure that all relevant parties were informed.”
Helen: “Yes, in the main school parents have come in to talk about their child’s self-harming because they have wanted our help and been at a loss as to what to do about the situation. I have never met parents who are not worried about this; they feel powerless to stop it. I would offer parents professional help through the school nurse who may then refer them to other outside agencies for help. If they didn’t want our input we would recommend them take their child to their own GP.”
When, as a teacher, is it right/necessary to involve the parents?
Trevor: “That is now a decision for the child protection link in school. They should be the teacher’s first port of call and everybody should know who to go to. Pastoral teams will take the decision about involving the parents and a teacher should never operate outside that layer of protection since they lack the experience and expertise.”
Helen: “We should not be in possession of facts in our job that parents cannot know. But it may not always be the right time for parents to know straight away. We work jointly with the counsellor in school in order to facilitate the telling of parents. The counsellor may even make the phone call herself. Our counsellor has confidentiality that we as pastoral staff do not have.”
Only a third of schools include self-harm as a PSHE topic; there is debate as to whether including it within the curriculum could actually encourage it. What are your thoughts on this?
Trevor: “Sadly I do have experience of seeing this phenomenon from my days in a secure unit. A girl came in with serious self-harm issues and within a week every other girl in the unit was self-harming. However, that was twenty years ago and the advent of social networking has changed the landscape. They are going to learn about self-harm so it is far better they do so in a controlled environment where the issues can be confronted and stereotypes challenged. Frankly I am surprised that it is not a compulsory topic.”
Helen: “It is a must to put on the PSHE syllabus. We even have year group assemblies on the topic.”
Do you think self-harm should be discussed more openly within schools?
Trevor: “Absolutely. I would not have said so twenty years ago, but I definitely would now.”
Helen: “We are open in our discussions.”
Do you feel teachers could benefit from training on this subject – is there a need?
Trevor: “I can’t think that it would ever be a bad thing to know more about this topic.”
Helen: “There is a need for GOOD training. I have been on courses where people who deliver the training material know less about dealing with this than I do. I think that you need medical professionals including those from a mental health background involved in the delivery of this form of training.”
In what areas, if any, would you, personally, like more training?
Trevor: “I am probably more experienced than most, but my training is twenty years old and I imagine things have developed since then. I would like to be clear what the latest advice is on how to approach the subject with the student.”
Helen: “I think that there is very little training delivered on why students do this, the control they feel when they do it and how to approach parents.”
What advice would you give to other teachers? Are there any other points you feel should be highlighted?
Trevor: “Don’t respond melodramatically. If they show you they are damaged they might be doing so because they think you can help. Stay calm, act as though you have seen it all before and then seek advice. Be the adult.”
Helen: “Don’t bury your head in the sand; do approach students who are doing this. Find practical help through good agencies for them. Be aware that parents often need more help than their children. Don’t punish students for doing this, but also don’t try to be a medical professional. You can’t solve most of these problems by yourself.”
Photo by Sheri Edwards