First things first: I have so much to be grateful for.
I grew up in a quiet, suburban neighborhood. I was fortunate to have a loving family, a safe home, good friends, access to a strong educational system, and an overall comfortable standard of living. I count my blessings in those regards every day. Sports were a huge part of my life, and as a result I am now a senior at my top college choice thanks to a track scholarship. Post graduation, I am excited to enter the educational system.
Okay, you might be thinking, so that’s all well and good, you seemed like a happy kid. But what’s your point? And yes, you are correct. For the most part, I was a happy kid. Still am, at 22 years young. But, like most of my peers, I also had my inner demons, and for several years they literally tore me apart. I know that this topic is pretty taboo in today’s culture, but it it desperately needs to be addressed. Now.
So, let’s talk about non-suicidal self-harm.
Right now, I am supposed to be writing a 3-5 page research paper on self-harming students. I selected this particular group of students to research because I wanted to see if it would help me understand. But the more we discuss this topic in class, the more books I read, the more articles and other resources I find on the internet, the more frustrated I become. Every time I try to focus, I keep getting distracted by one word: why.
First, why do students self-harm? No, it is not because they are suicidal. No, it is not because they are intentionally seeking out attention. If anything, more often than not, it is the complete opposite.
Think about it. Consider the environment that children are being raised in these days. Regardless of your race, regardless of your socioeconomic status, even regardless of your age-- because now even elementary school students are being taught how to make sure they are on the right path to attend college-- we are all surrounded by triggers causing stress, anxiety, depression, and a whole slew of other things that detract from the student’s quality of life that I couldn’t possibly list on one page. Not only that, but because we are also living in a highly stigmatized society where physical and mental flaws are frowned upon, the modern adolescent is under the added pressure of seeking out discreet “quick fixes” to their problems. Seeking out help is often [wrongly] viewed as a sign of weakness. As a result, we have a steadily increasing number of students becoming overburdened with these triggers feeling pressured to take their relief upon themselves.
Now let’s talk science and statistics. Biologically speaking, self-harming behaviors cause the body to release endorphins in response to the physical pain, which can temporarily numb the emotional pain, stress, or guilt that the adolescent is experiencing. Like drugs, this “fix” can become addicting. Fourteen to 17 percent of adolescents have intentionally harmed themselves at least once, with 5 to 8 percent of these adolescents continuing to do so regularly. Out of the total self-harming adolescent population, 70 percent of these students are female.
And I was one of them.
When I was in eighth grade, I began cutting myself. I continued to do so until my junior year in college. Which brings us back to the overarching question: why?
No, I am not asking why I did what I did. That would require hours of addressing the overwhelming mound of thoughts and feelings pertaining to the guilt induced by believing myself to be a failure, of deserving to be punished, of being afraid to talk to others about my inner mental turmoil for fear of being judged. That is a whole separate can of worms that I don’t want to open right now, because that is not my primary concern.
I am not asking why I did what I did; rather, I am asking why it was allowed to happen.
The scenario: a thirteen-year-old- girl with low self-esteem is called down to the guidance office towards the end of the school day, because a friend saw the cuts on her arm and is concerned that she will try to kill herself. She is seated in a poorly-lit room with no windows with the eccentric guidance counselor. For an hour, she sits and cries and refuses to talk. Her mother is called to pick her up. She goes home. She never hears from the counselor again.
Seven years later, she is a 20-year-old Division I athlete attending a prestigious college with a fully developed prefrontal cortex--therefore capable of making mature, well-informed decisions-- who still thinks it is okay to spike her calf open because she is nervous at a track meet.
While doing research for my paper, I was faced again and again with suggested methods for dealing with self-harm cases in the school system. Often, depending on the severity of the situation, these cases were referred to qualified professional therapists. At the very least, each case involved keeping tabs on the student.
So... why didn’t that happen?
More importantly, how many other cases of student self-injury have/ are currently being neglected?
Back then, I was relieved. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it and I didn’t want anyone asking questions. I wanted to smile, hide behind a cheerful exterior, and deal with my issues on my own terms. I strongly believed that what I did to my own body was my business, not theirs. After all, I wasn’t suicidal. I had it under control. Right?
But now, I am a senior in college, preparing to enter the education system, and I am angry. Not for my past-- what happened happened, I made it out okay, and there is no sense in wallowing in self-pity. I am asking this question, this burning why that still keeps me up at night, because I am concerned that there are more kids out there who went/are currently going through the same experience that I did.
So, this is a call to action. To the teachers, counselors, future educators, or whomever may have a voice in the matter, thank you for taking the time to read this. The next step is to find ways to make sure that these students are no longer allowed to slip through the cracks. Self-harm is an issue that won’t be going away anytime soon. These students are everywhere, and often they are the ones you would least expect. We need to find ways to address it, as well as find ways to maintain accountability for those in the school system responsible for the health and well-being of their students. I was fortunate in that I was able to stop on my own without intervention, and even now it is a temptation that I struggle with on a regular basis. Others might not be so lucky.
Bierma, James. "Cutting: A Growing Problem." Cutting: A Growing Problem. American School Counselor Association, 1 May 2007. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
Bubrick, K., Goodman, J. & Whitlock, J. (2010). Non-suicidal self-injury in schools: Developing and implementing school protocol. [Fact sheet] Cornell Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior in Adolescents and Young Adults. Retrieved from http://crpsib.com/userfiles/NSSI-schools.pdf
Lieberman, Richard. "Understanding and Responding to Students Who Self-Mutilate." NASP Center. NASP Center, Mar. 2004. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.
Selekman, Matthew D. "Helping Self-Harming Students." Educational Leadership 67.4 (2010): 48-53. Educational Leadership: Health and Learning. Educational Leadership, 2016. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.