In today’s public schools, it is referred to as the silent crisis. Silent both for the privacy of the act and for the lack of awareness of the general public regarding the behavior. A crisis because a social issue that affects an estimated one in twenty-five students is increasingly undermining the educational success of children.
The issue is that of self-harm, the intentional act of causing injury to oneself. There are students who intentionally hold a cigarette lighter to their skin until they mar it permanently. Others purposefully pull out their hair or gouge their skin with keys. Some even beat themselves with their own fists or blunt objects.
However, far and away, the most frequent self-injurious behavior in young people today is the act of cutting. Using a sharp item such as a knife or razor, “cutters” slice open their arms, wrists or legs. The cuts may be deep or shallow. They are often numerous and may be done in the form of a pattern. All draw blood and most leave permanent scars.
According to experts, students who injure themselves do so for a variety of reasons. It appears that some individuals simply want to experience pain. This may be because they feel guilty about some action or because they need an escape from feelings of being dissociated from their peers.
In other instances, these individuals state that they don’t experience pain at all because their feelings of dissociation have removed reality from them. These individuals do not feel the pain because during the act of cutting or harm, they appear to be temporarily removed from reality.
In either case, experts indicate that the human body is programmed to release endorphins in response to injuries. As these endorphins are released, “cutters” report that they feel their emotional pain dissipate. This causes them to actually feel better emotionally, instead of worse physically, as a result of the
injuries they have inflicted upon themselves.
Ultimately, these students report that through the act of hurting themselves they no longer experience the negative feelings they originally felt previously. Unfortunately, the sense of calm and relief the person experiences temporarily results in the behavior becoming habitual. Stress, anxiety, or feelings of depression can lead to the act of self-injury. The injury in turn appears to give the individual a mechanism for dealing with the initial stress. After hurting themselves, these individuals then receive a momentary emotional lift until the next bout of stress arrives.
Currently, this behavior is more prevalent in female students. However, many experts believe that the number of male students exhibiting the behavior is rising and that it is simply less recognizable in boys because of the notion that it is acceptable for boys to have bruises and cuts because of their more physical nature.
This crisis has enormous ramifications for schools who are ill-equipped to deal with such behaviors. Moreover, as the public cries out for greater student achievement and school accountability, educators worry about these students who seem ill-prepared for the stress of everyday life, students that are simply not equipped for the increased expectations that will be placed upon them.
There are some things in life that people do not talk about because they are uncomfortable talking about them. There are others that people do not talk about because they do not know about them. The student self-harm crisis currently appears to fall into both categories.
Child experts are concerned that parents and family members simply are not aware of this growing problem. In addition, these experts indicate that once family members become aware, their lack of understanding of the issue may lead to a feeling of helplessness or even shame. Because youngsters exhibiting such behavior are in need of regular counseling or psychiatric help, it is essential that family caregivers be on the look out for such self-injurious behavior and be willing to seek professional help when such behavior is detected.
To learn more about this issue, go to the Mental Health Foundation Web Site at www.mentalhealth.org.uk. Click on the link entitled “Problems/Treatments” and go to the information on Self-Harm. The site contains information regarding myths associated with self-harm, suggestions regarding prevention techniques, and a link to additional available resources.