Self-injury involves behaviors such as cutting and burning, whereby an individual intentionally hurts him or herself, without suicidal intent. Approximately 10–23% of adolescents engage in these types of behaviors, and schools are frequently confronted with students who self-injure.
These students are typically referred to mental health staff employed in schools (e.g., school counselors, school psychologists, well-being and welfare coordinators). However, many school mental health staff members lack the necessary skills to be able to help these students. In addition, parents have previously expressed dissatisfaction with the way schools have handled their child’s self-injury.
The authors examine school responses to self-injury from the perspectives of school mental health staff and parents; 19 school mental health staff were interviewed and 10 parents completed surveys regarding their experiences with how schools respond to self-injury.
The school mental health staff frequently discussed policy, or lack thereof, with regards to self-injury. Several schools had devised their own policy for responding to, and working with, students who self-injure, but with nothing to compare it to, staff members were concerned about whether their policy was helping or hurting.
Conversely, several schools had no policy at all and wanted all schools to be provided with basic guidelines to ensure a consistent, evidence-based approach that would most help the students.
The authors noted a disconnect regarding the major challenges discussed by school mental health staff and parents. Specifically, parents discussed their need for more support from the school directed at them as parents. In contrast, the school mental health staff reported that they needed far more support in their role; they felt ill-equipped to help students and therefore did not have the means to help parents as well.
The study illustrates the need for school guidelines and policy regarding responses to adolescents who self-injure. The results also highlight the importance of communication between schools and parents as a means to improving support for everyone in the school community (staff, parents, students).
The authors discuss how better education about self-injury — for school mental health staff and for parents — may facilitate a more collaborative approach to helping students who self-injure.