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 amount of cases that go unreported, that number 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, it’s very possible that a young student walking your halls is engaging in this type of 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.
4 Self-Harm Myths
It’s important that school districts comprehend self-harm correctly. As a sensitive topic, preconceived notions of self-injury can stigmatize the behavior and lead to more harm than good. If staff members aren’t understanding, students may not feel comfortable coming forward and seeking help.
Here are a few ways people often misunderstand self-harm behavior:
- “Everyone who hurts themselves is crazy.”
Firstly, know that self-harm is not a mental illness or mental health disorder. A common misconception around this behavior is that those who engage in it are “crazy.” In reality, self-harm is a common symptom of many underlying psychological conditions, according to The Recovery Village. The act of self-injury itself is an unhealthy coping mechanism in response to overwhelming emotional distress or trauma
- “If you hurt yourself, you must be doing it for attention.”
People are quick to call self-harm an attention-seeking behavior. Oftentimes it’s assumed that kids do things just to be noticed, but this isn’t the case when it comes to self-injury. According to the Mental Health Foundation, most people don’t talk to anyone about what they’re going through for a long time.
To that end, many self-destructive behaviors are difficult (if not impossible) to recognize. People generally do this by design, as they feel shame for engaging in this behavior. They often go to lengths to hide their injuries so that others don’t notice.
- “People who self-harm are suicidal.”
It’s true that engaging in self-harm can lower someone’s inhibitions about attempting suicide, but the behavior itself is not a suicide attempt. In most cases, kids who self-injure are not trying to take their own life. In fact, self-harm is also known as non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI).
According to a 2018 study, the most common function of self-harming behavior is to temporarily escape from emotional stress and overwhelming negative feelings. The act itself can actually release endorphins, which improve mood and relieve pain.
- “Only certain people hurt themselves.”
The truth is that self-harm can affect anyone. That said, adolescents are especially vulnerable to emotional distress. Research seems to indicate that the prevalence of self-injury actually decreases with age, impacting only 5% of adults and about 17% of teens.
Physical Signs Of Self-Harm That You Might Not Recognize
When you think about self-harm, you probably imagine a few specific behaviors: cutting, burning, scratching, or even pulling out one’s hair. Although 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 a student’s wellbeing.
Here are some of the most overlooked signs of physical self-harm that could be occurring in your district:
- Social isolation
Isolating yourself may not always be an example of NSSI. 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 themselves with friends, there may be an underlying problem. Loneliness — even if it’s self-imposed — is linked to several adverse health conditions including depression.
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.
- Eating too much or too little
Self-harm and eating disorders often go hand in hand. People who struggle with one often struggle 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 wellbeing.
- 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.
- 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 on a regular basis, 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 have made an attempt.
Examples of digital self-harm include:
- 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.
- 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.
- Purposely consuming content that damages self-esteem: Sometimes, self-destructive behavior might include watching videos or reading content that makes you feel bad about yourself by comparison.
School districts that use cyber safety monitoring tools are also finding more digital signals of physical self-harm in school-provided technology.
There are different reasons why students might being using these tools to express their self-harming behavior. Some are using Google Docs as a sort of digital journal where they are able to express their experiences and emotions as an outlet. Some use school-provided technology to share these behaviors as a cry for help. Because either they know that it is being monitored or they hope that there is someone out there that will help them.
Digital signs of self-harm that our customers have found in their district’s Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 apps include:
- 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.
It is 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
With an automated cloud monitoring solution, you can automatically detect signs of self-harm risk. For instance, if a student uses a Microsoft Word document to confide in their friends that they’ve been cutting themselves at home, the platform can trigger an alert. You can adjust policies at your discretion, meaning you can customize the keywords that need to be monitored for in your cloud environment.
This added visibility is essential for self-harm and suicide intervention. Extending the power of your IT department with a cloud monitoring solution is the advantage you need to identify safety risks and better help students in need of support.
Responding To Self-Harm Digital Signals: 5 Tips And Best Practices
One thing that often comes up with new customers is, when a self-harm signal is flagged, what should you do next?
Here are a few best practices you can use to better respond to incidents and direct at-risk students to the appropriate resources:
- Designate a trained professional point person to notify when a case of self-harm is detected.
- Ease into the conversation. Be sensitive to the student’s emotions and gently mention the signs you’ve noticed and that you’re about their well-being.
- Acknowledge how difficult it can be to discuss mental health.
- Don’t focus on their specific behaviors. Instead, ask about how they’re feeling and what they’re going through.
- Know when it’s time to alert parents/guardians.
- Modify your solution over time to account for trends in self-harm. This way you can rest assured that your cloud monitoring tool will detect a safety signal when they occur.