How social environments impact student mental health and self-harm

Why are we the way that we are? Why do we do what we do? These are two broad questions that nobody really knows the answer to, but most researchers agree that a combination of factors are involved — most notably, our environment.

It’s true: Environmental stress has a direct relationship with personal stress. A person’s immediate surroundings — including the social conditions within that proximity — dramatically impact mood, behavior, and mental health. One landmark report even cites over 600 studies that prove less-stressful healthcare environments improve medical outcomes.

So, what does this have to do with your school district? Simply put, a student’s environment influences their mental health, which can lead to destructive behaviors like self-harm, suicide, and violence. To curb these risks and protect student safety, schools need to maintain a healthy school climate.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the environmental risk factors both at home and at school that may lead to self-harm. Then, break down a few strategies you can use to create a more positive learning environment and reduce toxic behavior.

Risk factors at home

Researchers estimate that up to 1 in 4 young people are affected by self-harm. But what exactly is it?

Self-harm — also known as self-injury, self-abuse, or non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) — happens when someone chooses to hurt themselves without intending to end their life. This is an important distinction: Just because a young person starts harming themselves doesn’t mean they’re experiencing suicidal ideation. However, self-harm is the beginning of a slippery slope. According to The Recovery Village, the more self-harm actions a person engages in, the more likely they are to attempt suicide.

In truth, there’s no single reason why people decide to self-harm. However, in most cases the person is struggling with overwhelming emotional pain. Others say they feel worthless, lonely, or empty inside. Some people even self-harm as a way to take control of their bodies when they feel a lack of control in other areas of their life.

But what’s especially impactful is a young person’s life at home. Family dynamics, upbringing, and structure have a significant impact on both short- and long-term mental health.

Socioeconomic conditions and early life events — particularly those related to trauma — can cement themselves and lead to mental health issues later in life. According to Alliant International University, these factors include:

  • Lack of social support
  • Social stigma
  • Abuse
  • Family discord
  • Loss of family member
  • Poverty
  • Food insecurity
  • Toxic relationships
  • Lack of self-care or relaxation

Factors like these have been linked to mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more. Students who experience these conditions may be more likely to harm themselves, according to Verywell. After all, self-harm is normally a response to overwhelming emotional pain.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge argue that NSSI is associated with childhood family adversity (i.e. poorly functioning family dynamics). Their study indicates that improving the family environment may reduce the risk of self-injury.

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The effects of a toxic school climate

Although the home is certainly the most important environment for a young person, the school climate plays an almost equally significant role in shaping their mental health. In the United States, students spend about a sixth of their waking hours at school. That’s over 1,000 hours inside the classroom or walking the halls every year.

Sometimes, young people use school as an escape from their family troubles and at-home issues. The opposite can also be said about students who seek relief from the trials and tribulations of the American education system. In either case, toxic environments make escape impossible, and can even make a bad situation worse.

The unfortunate truth is that many schools have a problem managing toxicity on school property. Young people often engage in behaviors that negatively affect the mental health of those around them. Although they take many shapes and forms, these behaviors typically include:

  • Bullying: Traditional bullying and cyberbullying run rampant in many school systems. Whether bullies are teasing their victims in the hallway or disparaging them online, both types of behavior inject toxicity throughout the school climate.
  • Physical violence: Bullying may include physical violence, but ordinary arguments between students may also escalate into a fight. No school condones fighting, but some may brush off an incident or turn a blind eye to the problem. Students take notice of this and may feel unsafe or not in control when on school property.
  • Sexually innapropriate activity: Sexual harassment is more common than most districts would care to admit, but it’s equally deserving of your attention. Students may be making crude comments about their classmates or making unwanted advances, which can make the receiving student feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Also, young people often exchange sexually explicit content between one another, which sometimes includes images of the students themselves. Not only is this a significant legal concern, but it’s also an incident that could dramatically damage the mental health of any student involved.

The effects of these toxic behaviors are well-documented. They worsen a student’s mental health and lead to self-harm or suicide, but also can reproduce the same types of behavior. For instance, students who are bullied are more likely to bully someone themselves, thus creating a vicious cycle of toxicity.

How to create a positive school climate

The good news is that there are many ways schools can break the cycle, erase toxicity, and promote a safer, friendlier, and more positive school climate. Getting started might seem like a daunting task, which is why we’ve put together a list of the most effective strategies:

1. Implement Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social Emotional Learning is a school of thought that teaches interpersonal and emotional skills that students need to succeed academically and in their future lives. SEL focuses on five core principles:

  1. Self-awareness: The ability to comprehend your own thoughts and feelings, as well as how they influence your behavior.
  2. Social awareness: The ability to empathize with others and understand their perspectives.
  3. Self-management: Managing one’s emotions and behaviors in different situations, such as managing stress and self-motivation.
  4. Relationship skills: Maintaining healthy and supportive relationships through communication, empathy, and other important capacities.
  5. Decision-making: The ability to make responsible choices about personal behavior and social interactions.

SEL can help students come to terms with their emotions, empathize with others, overcome social pressures and manage at-home or academic stressors. It’s also been shown to reduce school violence.

FREE DOWNLOAD! Back To School Safely Guide [based on real stories] LEARN & SECURE >>

2. Create a school policy

It’s important for schools to have a set of procedures in place to manage their learning environment. School administrators should come together and create a shared understanding of how they’ll approach toxicity on school property. This should include protocols for investigating and responding to incidents of bullying, harassment, and other toxic behaviors.

What’s also important is to make this policy known to all students. Communicating the existence of the policy and why it’s in place is key to deterring negative behaviors. Also, it lets the student population know that you’re committed to providing them a safe environment.

3. Openly discuss mental health resources

Make your school a safe haven for mental health. In other words, make it crystal-clear to students that they’re welcome to discuss their feelings and problems with staff members, especially mental health professionals or counselors.

Implementing and promoting programs, hotlines and other mental health resources is important. If students know what’s available to them, they’ll be more likely to access them when needed. School climates that openly discuss mental health inherently destigmatize the topic; a big barrier to reporting incidents of toxicity.

4. Install professional development programs

The way that teachers and staff members talk about mental health is important. If they call students who self-harm crazy, they further stigmatize the behavior. This may lead a student to feel shame about NSSI and make them less likely to seek support.

Training programs teach staff about how they should discuss, deal with, and approach sensitive topics in the classroom. That way, when a student does come forward about their situation, the staff member will be prepared to help.

5. Lean on technology

As more schools invest in digital learning tools and cloud technologies, it’s becoming much more difficult to identify signs of toxic behaviors, self-harm, or suicidal ideation. And with limited resources, most school districts don’t have the means to monitor thousands of students at the same time.

That’s why cloud monitoring is such a powerful asset. A cloud monitoring solution is designed to detect signs of risk that exist in school-provided cloud domains like Google Workspace or Microsoft 365.

Nowadays, a young person’s cloud activity often reflects their emotional wellbeing. For instance, they may keep a diary on Microsoft Word or discuss abuse over Google Chat. No matter where they occur and how they happen, cloud monitoring tools can automatically identify the incident without invading the student’s privacy.

With added visibility, schools can uncover student safety risks and better protect them from bullying, self-harm, and suicide.

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