In a study conducted internationally by Brunner et al. (2013), the statistics reflected an average percentage of 27.6% in European students who said they had committed at least one episode of self-harm in their lives. Among them, 7.8% had executed more than five such actions. The Spanish state data indicated a position very similar to the international average (28.9% and 7.6%, respectively), a fact that indicates a significant prevalence of these behaviors so disturbing in our youth.
Non-Suicidal Self-harm in the educational and school environment
Studies have concluded that this type of behavior usually begins between the ages of 13 and 14 and, despite the alarm that may arise from its occurrence, it is rarely directly related to clear suicidal ideation. Even so, when a recurrence is observed in these types of actions, the real risk of suicide becomes a higher danger. This is explained because, after a period of habituation at the level of pain that the self-injury entails in the individual, he tends to perform behaviors that report a higher level of pain sensation, and death itself can be inflicted in this way ( Straub, 2018).
For all these reasons, its early detection becomes extremely fundamental since these types of actions are usually caused by the experience of intense emotional distress and are carried out as a way to alleviate these psychological tensions. In these cases, a relevant role falls on the figure of the young academic educator. It seems essential, therefore, to provide this figure with initial guidelines for action so that the teacher can adequately address such a complex and delicate situation.
Certain indicators can alert the educator of the presence of this type of behavior such as the observation of bodily injuries caused by ambiguous or difficult to explain situations, clothing that is not very appropriate to the time of year (use of long sleeves or turtlenecks in summer), the possession of sharp objects between the personal effects of the children or witnessing sudden and recurrent absences to go to the bathroom during classes.
Tips for educators
These are several guidelines to be followed by educators dealing with young people who present Non-Suicidal Self-Injury.
1. Do not judge
A first basic point is to set aside attitudes of misunderstanding, rejection or panic when the adolescent agrees to verbalize the commission of these actions. For the latter, the fact of sharing their experience of emotional distress already becomes in itself an extremely difficult process, so the recommended response as educators must be calm, supportive, confident and empathetic towards their insecurities.
The objective of this type of treatment must be that the student understands that he is valued as a person (although not his behavior) and that he perceives that the people around him care about him and his well-being. Without resorting to pressure or demand, it is recommended to motivate the young person to seek or access to receive professional help. In approximately half of the cases on which the surveys of the aforementioned investigations are based, it is found that students want to abandon this type of behavior and that they seem receptive to attending therapy.
2. Know how to listen
Secondly, it is possible to directly address the adolescent the factors that are motivating these behaviors, as well as their frequency and severity. This makes it possible to assess the referral to a professional who can offer you individualized therapeutic assistance and help you acquire psychological strategies to manage your emotions and discomfort appropriately and adaptively.
Questions like: “Have you ever thought about not continuing to live due to a problem that you think has no solution?” Or “Have you ever thought of a specific plan to carry it out?” It can be very helpful in determining the level of risk of real suicidal behavior, since usually in non-suicidal self-harm the person does not consider what method he will follow to implement that purpose.
3. Do not let the environment reinforce it
Another relevant aspect lies in not reinforcing the adolescent’s self-injurious behaviors, so the educator must maintain a discreet stance regarding classmates and ask the adolescent to keep the wounds covered without giving them excessive importance. This measure prevents the effect of “contagion” of behavior by imitation of other children, potentially frequent in adolescent age groups. However, it is convenient to consult the problem with the specialist in the psychology of the educational center so that I can advise you on how to approach the direct approach of the subject to the student.
4. Know the causes and control them
A fourth element to consider lies in the fact that family problems, conflicts in the group of friends or difficulties in the school environment are the main factors that are associated with a higher frequency of execution of these behaviors. Despite this, it has been observed that a greater probability of risk of real suicide is associated with a self-perception of loneliness or isolation, absence of social support and the presence of a psychiatric history.
Given the finding of a high risk of suicide, the child may be referred for therapeutic follow-up on admission to a mental health center. On the contrary, in cases of non-suicidal self-injurious behavior, an outpatient follow-up may be carried out.
5. Apply appropriate techniques and methods
Finally, although the student in question is doing an individual therapeutic follow-up on his part, it is worth mentioning that there are a series of orientations that can favor a remission of the self-injurious tendency. Thus, meditation and relaxation exercises, the performance of disconnection activities such as sport or music, the establishment of alternative action plans to self-injurious behavior or cognitive work on possible distortions when interpreting personal situations are included as effective elements in psychoeducational intervention with these young people.
In-Albon et al. (2015) present a brief guide of action for educators that summarizes what has been exposed so far. Specifically, the authors indicate the following guidelines as relevant:
- Request medical assistance in case of recent injuries.
- Avoid panic reactions, since at first the risk of real suicide is low.
- Understand the behavior as a method to relieve the emotional distress perceived in the short term.
- Offer support, value the person avoiding both critical judgments and pressures for the immediate abandonment of self-injurious behavior.
- Address directly if the young person presents real suicidal ideation, investigating the frequency of self-harm and the existence of a premeditated action plan.
- Motivate the child to seek psychological help, as well as consult and seek professional advice as an educator to address the situation appropriately.