Self-harm is the deliberate act of hurting or injuring one’s body. It can be exhibited in a number of ways, including burning skin, hitting the head, punching walls and ingesting sharp objects, but most commonly takes the form of cutting.
Jean Andrews is the Otago/Southland representative and holds the Guidance Counsellor Portfolio on the New Zealand Association of Counsellors. She also works as a school guidance counsellor for intermediate aged students.
Andrews says self-harm is currently one of the top ten reasons for guidance counsellor consultations in secondary schools.
“I would be looking at say 10% of all our consultations would be to do with self-harm as the major consult and certainly it would be a secondary manifestation of some of the other things we deal with as well – suicidality and self-harm can go hand in hand, but not always. Not every person who self-harms is suicidal.”
Self-harm happens when students who struggle with their thoughts and feelings turn their anger inwards, instead of externalising it.
“If something has changed in their life that’s made them feel bad about themselves, or they’re struggling with different thoughts and feelings, or they’re having relationship issues, or they’re upset or grieving because there’s changes in their family circumstances, then they deflect it in on themselves and they struggle,” Andrews says.
“At puberty one has very intense thoughts and feelings. Hormones are changing and so they struggle to manage these. Often what they do is then to get a sort of relief from it, without hurting other people and lashing out at others, they then start experimenting with hurting themselves.”
Students who self-harm may let others see it as a non-verbal way to ask for help. Andrews says it is often parents who discover their child is self-harming.
Although the experience can be frightening, the best response is to remain calm, reasoned and acknowledge the child’s emotions.
“Not to overreact, not to get distressed even though it is distressing to see your child do this, but to reinforce that you love them and that there’s nothing they can’t talk about with you and you’ll walk the journey with them to get help and support,” Andrews says.
Under the Vulnerable Children Act 2014, schools need to have clear policies to identify students at risk of self-harm.
“Where staff see that there’s cuts on wrists or arms and students start to act in unusual ways, or they hear rumours about a particular student cutting, then they need to actually go to the person in the school who’s trained to deal with that at-risk student,” Andrews says.
“That person needs to be trained in assessing the degree of self-harm, assessing the risk behind it, if it’s suicidal, etcetera. Then they can engage that young person in the process of addressing those issues. Sometimes if the young person is at significant risk it will require them to be referred on and then for parents to be brought in.”
Schools are also mandated to work at enhancing wellbeing and research what students are saying is affecting their wellbeing, she says.
“Often it can be simple things like verbal exclusions or verbal putdowns, so actually having a campaign of wellbeing in the school which addresses things like bullying, addresses things like body image and inclusion and then promotes help seeking and normalises help seeking, so when they get upset and they get into these emotional situations which they struggle to handle instead of trying to find a way through it they take a friend and they go and get support from a trained person.”
The New Zealand Association of Counsellors is working to increase the availability of counsellors in secondary schools as well as intermediate and primary, as it is finding self-harm amongst younger students is increasing.
Self-harming can be highly addictive because the brain releases endorphins to help us feel better after an injury, Andrews says.
“In the immediate when you cut or self-harm, there is a feeling of relief that happens even though you might be hurting and because there’s this reward, my understanding is it’s like having a hit of crack cocaine on the brain, the brain is stimulated and rewarded by it. It then sets up a desire to cut again to get the same response, just like with alcohol and drugs,” she says.
“When students become very addicted to it they can cut most of their body or harm themselves in very dangerous ways and can put their lives at risk.”
One of the ways parents can ‘future-proof’ their children is to build self-esteem, Andrews says.
“Young people are challenged by so many things – the idea of perfection, body perfection and social media, doing well at school, getting excellence grades for everything. If you’ve got a parent who says ‘I love you, all I want you to do is your best and no matter what happens I will always be there and love you’ that is going to be the sort of thing that will future proof a child and enable the child to be heard and find the words to talk to you about the things that they’re struggling with and then for that parent to provide an opportunity for that child to tell them, to help them get the story out and listen to them without judgment, I think those are the sorts of things that can help.”
One 17-year-old Kiwi student says he knows of two to three students who self-harm at his school.
“I’ve seen evidence of it. I haven’t discussed it with them, but I do know of people,” he says.
“We’re quite a big school and I wouldn’t say I know of that many cases of it but you don’t really know, it’s hard to tell how many kids are doing it.”
While it is common knowledge amongst peers that certain students self-harm, it is unclear whether teachers at the school are aware of or have addressed the situation.
“I don’t have any evidence of teachers seeing it, but I assume that they might have if they’re wearing short sleeves,” he says.
“They don’t really hide it, most of them have it out in the open…there is discussion about it but most people are quite supportive, there’s no harassment about it.”
The student knows a former self-harmer reasonably well. This student stopped self-harming after seeing a school counsellor and attending counselling sessions outside of school.
“[The scars] are pretty healed over on the guy I know, probably Year 9 and 10 was when he was doing it and I think he’s a lot better now,” he says.
The two boys have had a few discussions on the topic.
“It was quite a difficult discussion. It’s pretty distressing when someone my age is having not a great time, having bad thoughts and the only way they can address that is through harming themselves,” he says.
“It’s kind of a touchy subject, you’re kind of like yeah, I probably wish I had a way of handling that better.”
While it is important to acknowledge self-harming behaviour, Andrews says it is equally important to realise the issue is not insurmountable.
“This is something that we really do need to address, it’s not to be glanced over and yet at the same time recognise there is a lot of it around and recognise that it’s quite treatable and actually with a very small amount of help at the early stages young people will move on and find other ways of managing their thoughts and feelings,” she says.
“There are things that parents can do and certainly friends, kids that know other kids, and also staff in schools and just anyone dealing with a young person. Providing their unconditional support, love, care and access and then recognising it’s okay. It’s very common that kids self-harm, but let’s go and get them the kind of professional help that they need.”
Where to get help:
If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Or if you need to talk to someone else:
Asian Helpline –0800 862 342
Lifeline – 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline – 0800 376 633 or free text 234
Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (for under 18s)
What’s Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18-year-olds 1pm–10pm weekdays and 3pm–10pm weekends)
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
OUTLine NZ – 0800 688 5463
Healthline – 0800 611 116