How do I respond to students who self-injure?

 

Teachers and other school staff are in a unique position to recognise warning signs of NSSI among adolescents, and respond by referring students who self-injure or are suspected of self-injuring to the school counsellor (if available) or the school principal, in accordance with their school’s policy.

 

However, teachers and other school staff can feel uncomfortable talking to students who self-injure, and may express fear, anxiety, shock, and horror. Although these feelings and reactions are completely understandable and natural, inappropriate responses among teachers and other school staff may perpetuate stigma, and can impact on the willingness of students who self-injure to seek help for the behaviour in the future.

 

Showing excessive interest and being overly reactive in response to students who self-injure, or refusing to talk to students who self-injure, may also prevent students who self-injure or are suspected of self-injuring from seeking help.

Do

 

  • Respond to the student in a calm, caring, and non-judgmental way (e.g., “I have noticed wounds that appear to be self-inflicted, could you tell me about that”).

  • Acknowledge the students’ feelings and experiences, and offer to listen to them.

  • Accept the standpoint of the student even though you may not accept their behaviour (e.g. “I understand that things feel like they are becoming unbearable for you at the moment”).

  • Use a low-key dispassionate demeanour with the student, and show respectful curiosity.

  • Reassure the student that people care about them and can help them (e.g., “I understand that it can be scary to ask for help, but I believe that there are people who can help you”).

  • Talk to the student away from other students.

  • Use to student’s language for self-injury and show a respectful willingness to listen.

  • Take a non-judgmental stance and show compassion for the student (e.g., “Thank you for sharing that with me. I know that must have been hard”).

  • Refer the student to the school counsellor (if available) or the school principal, in accordance with your school’s policy for responding to students who self-injure.

 

Do not

 

  • Be overly reactive or advert your gaze from the student. This could prevent the student from seeking help in the future (e.g., “Look at what you have done to yourself”).

  • Show the student that you are anxious, shocked, horrified, fearful, or frustrated.

  • Try to stop the student with threats or ultimatums. This will just lead the student to hide their behaviour in the future (e.g., “If you don’t stop cutting yourself I will have to tell your parents”).

  • Assume that the student is suicidal or just trying to get attention.

  • Show excessive interest in the self-injury or permit the student to relive their self-injury.

  • Talk about self-injury in front of the class and other students.

  • Promise the student that you won’t tell anyone about their self-injury.