Identifying the hidden signs of self-harm in your school district

Self-harm is a growing problem in the United States. According to data from Healthyplace, approximately two million cases of self-harm are reported every year. If you factor in the number of cases that go unreported, that figure is likely much higher.

Researchers also estimate that roughly 90% of people who self-harm begin during their early teen or pre-adolescent years. As a matter of fact, the average age at which someone starts to self-injure is just 13 years old.

What does this mean for your school district? Simply put, a young student walking your halls may engage in this behavior. As a threat to student safety, it’s your responsibility to identify cases of self-harm and intervene as appropriately as possible.

Unfortunately, detecting signs of self-harm isn’t always easy. To help you identify at-risk students, let’s take a look at self-harm and the often overlooked signs that might otherwise go unnoticed.

What is self-harm?

The Cleveland Clinic defines self-harm as the act of hurting yourself on purpose. More specifically, it includes any self-destructive behavior that isn’t meant to end your life, but rather inflict physical and/or emotional pain.

In other words, when a young person hurts themselves, they aren’t necessarily making a suicide attempt. This is why self-harm is also commonly referred to as “non-suicidal self-injury” (NSSI). Although someone who engages in this behavior may experience suicidal thoughts, the act itself is not an attempted suicide.

Why do people hurt themselves?

People are quick to call self-harm an attention-seeking behavior. It’s often assumed that kids do things just to be noticed, but this isn’t the case when it comes to self-injury.

In fact, research indicates that most people try to keep self-harm a secret because of shame or fear of discovery. For instance, they may wear long sleeves to hide scars or avoid discussing painful emotions with a loved one or family member.

Indeed, students tend to harm themselves for much deeper and more psychological reasons. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a young person may inflict emotional or physical harm on themselves to:

  1. Help them cope with negative feelings and intense emotions. Some kids may be dealing with difficulties at school or home, but aren’t comfortable discussing these feelings with others. When this pressure builds up, people may resort to physical harm as a way to temporarily relieve themselves of emotional pain.
  2. Direct emotion inward. Likewise, with no other place to point their thoughts and frustrations, kids sometimes take their anger out on themselves.
  3. Communicate with others. It’s not easy for a young person to ask for help, even from a loved one or family member. This is especially true when it comes to emotional distress, as there’s still a stigma around mental health.

What are the risk factors?

There isn’t a sole cause that leads a person to hurt themselves. However, there are several risk factors that may work individually or in combination — each of which are believed to play a role in the onset of self-harm.

These include:

  1. Genetics: Does self-harm run in families? The short answer is yes. According to The Recovery Village, self-injury itself is not a mental illness or disorder. However, it may be related to an underlying mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, or an eating disorder. These may be passed down from parent to child, which means students with a family history of such conditions may be at greater risk of partaking in self-harm.
  2. Brain chemistry: An imbalance of certain brain chemicals — particularly those responsible for regulating emotion — may increase someone’s vulnerability to self-harm.
  3. Environment: People are social creatures, and young people even more so. Kids who come from chaotic homes or are bullied at school may not feel safe sharing their feelings with others. This may lead them to participate in self-injurious behavior, as they believe there’s no other way to communicate their painful emotions.

These factors have a significant impact on someone’s likelihood to self-harm, but the truth is NSSI can affect anyone. That said, adolescents are especially vulnerable to emotional distress. Research seems to indicate that the prevalence of self-injury decreases with age, impacting only 5% of young adults and 17% of teens.

Physical signs of self-harm

When you think about self-harm, you probably imagine a few specific symptoms: cutting, burning, scratching, or even pulling out one’s hair. Although these are all common types of self-injury, there are many other forms that you should be looking for in your school district.

The following self-destructive behaviors aren’t often recognized right away. Their warning signs aren’t obvious and may even be impossible to see with the naked eye. Yet, if they aren’t detected and mitigated with the right resources, they each pose a serious risk to student safety.

Here are some of the most overlooked signs of physical self-harm that could be occurring in your district:

1. Social isolation
Isolating yourself may not always be an example of NSSI. In fact, it’s usually one of the risk factors that lead to it. However, social isolation is sometimes a purposeful behavior motivated by an overwhelming swell of emotion.

If you notice a student is suddenly withdrawn from activities they once enjoyed or no longer associating with friends, there may be an underlying problem. Loneliness — even if it’s self-imposed — is linked to several adverse health conditions including depression.

2. Hypersexuality
Not all instances of casual sexual activity are inherently self-destructive, but hypersexuality can be considered a type of NSSI. For some people, casual sex is a means of intentionally seeking physical and psychological harm. Sometimes, young people knowingly engage in unprotected or unsafe activities as a form of self-punishment.

3. Eating too much or too little
Self-harm and eating disorders often go hand in hand. People who struggle with one often battle with the other, as well. Sometimes, a student might intentionally overregulate their diet to the point that they suffer from hunger.

On the other hand, they may purposefully binge eat to the point that they feel a sense of self-loathing for what they’ve done. In either case, this behavior can negatively affect their emotional and physical well-being.

4. Associating with toxic people
You may notice a student is starting to hang out with a new group of friends. In some cases, these new relationships are purposefully chosen because they’re toxic. For instance, a teen might accept abuse or toxicity from a group of people because they feel deserving of that behavior. Instead of dissociating with the group, the student might put up with their poor treatment as a form of self-punishment.

5. Substance abuse
According to The Recovery Village, self-injury can lead to a greater risk of drug or alcohol addiction and vice versa. Like self-harm, substance abuse is often used as a coping mechanism because it allows someone to numb their emotional pain. And, because excessive drinking and drug use is itself a self-destructive behavior, it too can be considered a form of self-harm.

Digital signs of self-harm (and how to spot them)

Self-harm isn’t always physical. Now that most schools and their students are using digital technology regularly, a new type of behavior is taking shape on the internet.

Digital self-harm refers to any act of self-aggression that takes place online rather than in the real world. According to researchers, digital self-harm is a growing danger that impacts up to 9% of American teens. Even worse, teens who digitally self-harm are up to seven times more likely to consider suicide and as much as 15 times more likely to make an attempt.

Examples of digital self-harm include:

  1. Anonymously sending insults or threats to yourself: Some young people create accounts under anonymous usernames so that they can bully themselves in a public forum, such as social media. They may send hurtful messages or even reveal embarrassing secrets about themselves for others to see.
  2. Sharing self-deprecating content online: Other times, students aren’t secretive about their behavior. They may openly post degrading comments about themselves or share photos and videos of themselves that cause emotional harm.
  3. Purposely consuming content that damages self-esteem: Digitally self-destructive behavior might include watching videos or reading content that makes you feel bad about yourself by comparison.

The problem for your school district is that students may be engaging in digital self-harm right under your nose without you knowing it. Believe it or not, some are even using school-provided cloud services — Google Docs, OneDrive, etc. — to do so.

There are different reasons why students might begin using these tools to express their self-harming behavior. Some are using Google Docs as a digital journal where they express their experiences and painful emotions as an outlet. Some use school-provided technology to share these behaviors as a cry for help.

Unfortunately, with little visibility into online activity, pinpointing these safety signals is almost impossible. The good news? That’s where self-harm detection comes into play.

What is self-harm detection?

A self-harm detection tool is a cloud-based solution that allows you to identify potential warning signs floating through your cloud domain automatically.

Cloud Monitor, for example, integrates directly into Google Workspace and Microsoft 365. It uses AI-powered capabilities to automatically scan your files for content or keywords that could indicate a student at risk.

It’s difficult for many districts, and particularly for technology teams who don’t have training in student mental health and support, to justify monitoring for self-harm and other toxic online behavior in their own technology. However, this means you have the opportunity to identify signs of self-harm in all its forms and make a real difference in the lives of your students and your community.

Here are some of the safety signals our customers have found using Cloud Monitor:

  • Discussing hurting oneself online with friends: In the case that a student does speak about hurting themselves, they may do so in a school-provided cloud application, such as Google Chat, Docs, or Gmail.
  • Saving photos or videos of their self-harm: Some students will go so far as to upload photos or videos of their self-harming behavior to school-provided drives, shared drives, chat apps, etc. They may do this to save the file for themselves or to share it with a friend. In some cases, another student might upload the file to share with others and bully the self-harming student.

There are many ways to get ahead of student safety risks, and Cloud Monitor is just one of them. Additionally, content filtering tools can act as a first line of defense when kids are researching such sensitive topics online.

Take Content Filter, for instance. Our solution allows you to block or restrict access to websites related to self-harm and suicide. It can even alert you if students are searching for similar keywords online, enabling you to investigate further and confirm whether or not someone’s well-being could be in jeopardy.

Responding to self-harm: Tips for helping students

One issue that often comes up with new customers is what to do once a self-harm signal has been flagged.

Here are a few best practices you can use to better respond to incidents and direct at-risk students to the appropriate resources:

  1. Designate a trained individual you’ll notify when a case of self-harm is detected. Ideally, this will be a certified mental health professional.
  2. Ease into the conversation. Be sensitive to the student’s emotions and gently mention the signs you’ve noticed and that you’re concerned about their well-being.
  3. Acknowledge how difficult it can be to discuss mental health. This can help erase the stigma and encourage the student to speak candidly about their feelings.
  4. Don’t focus on their specific behaviors. Instead, ask about how they’re feeling and what they’re going through.
  5. Know when it’s time to alert parents/guardians.
  6. Modify Cloud Monitor over time to account for trends in self-harm. This way you can rest assured you’ll detect a safety signal when it occurs.

Uncover safety signals with ManagedMethods

There’s no question that self-harm is a serious problem plaguing the K-12 school system. However, you’re not empty-handed. With the help of tools like Cloud Monitor and Content Filter, you can greatly improve risk detection, streamline incident response, and give your kids the treatment they deserve.

Learn more about self-harm detection and how ManagedMethods can help you protect your students today.

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