It was reported by various media outlets today that a pupil at a school in Surrey was permitted to self-harm under the supervision of staff. The child’s gender varies depending which account you read and his/her age has not been made public. The school in question provides specialist education for young people up to the age of 19 who have Asperger’s, higher functioning autism or an associated diagnosis.
This story resonated with me. I began self-harming very young, at the age of 7. I started by scraping a My Little Pony or Barbie hairbrush across the skin of my forearms until it bled. By the age of 10 or so I was using one of my dad’s disposable razors; by the time I started university I was using kitchen knives. I went to great lengths to hide what I was doing – I felt ashamed of it and didn’t want anyone else to know. At the same time I was desperate for someone to notice so that I could come clean, own up and get help.
The first time I ever told anyone about my self-harming was when I was seeing a bereavement counsellor at the age of 19. After a few sessions I hesitatingly confessed the shameful secret that I had hidden for so long. His response wasn’t what I expected – almost jovially he said “Oh don’t worry, if it helps it’s a good thing”. I was stunned and horrified by his response, and never went back.
Looking at it now from a more mature perspective I can see what he was trying to tell me. Self-harm is a coping mechanism. It’s a pretty rubbish one admittedly, and definitely not healthy, but it helps the individual to cope with or process feelings and situations that would otherwise be utterly overwhelming. Many self-harmers find that when their families discover their secret they remove anything with a sharp edge in an attempt to stop the harm. However well-intentioned this is it often does more harm than good; the self-harmer has no outlet for their feelings and may turn to far worse coping mechanisms in order to regain control.
Because at its most basic level self-harm is usually about control. When you are feeling overwhelmed, panicky, as though you are suffocating, self-harm is a way to focus and regain self-control. Having this coping mechanism taken away can be devastating and can sometimes cause a downward spiral leading to suicidal thoughts.
I suspect that this is what was uppermost in the minds of the headteacher and principal of Unsted Park school when they implemented their support scheme for the pupil in question. Apparently staff were told to give the pupil (who may be a boarder) access to sterile razor blades and accompany them to the bathroom, checking they were ok every couple of minutes. The wounds would then be cleaned and dressed.
Obviously this isn’t an ideal solution and teaching staff should not have to bear that sort of responsibility. But as far as I can see once the school became aware of what the pupil was doing they only really had 2 options; to try to put a stop to it and risk the pupil spiralling downwards or to make sure it was done as safely as possible while finding a better way to support and help the pupil.
By the time this policy had been in place a few days several staff had complained. The school, its headteacher and principal are now under investigation. There has been no mention of whether the pupil is getting more appropriate support, or indeed any support at all. I hope they are.
When I was young the thought of someone finding out about my self-harming both terrified and tantalised me. The thought of being escorted to the bathroom by a teacher so that I could cut myself would have been horrifying and humiliating, I didn’t want anyone to find out what I did. And yet if someone had told me that they knew I would probably have clung to them, sobbing with relief and begging them to help me stop.
There are no villains here, no wicked teachers encouraging children to mutilate themselves. There are only staff who, I believe, were doing their best to cope with an extremely difficult situation and fulfil their duty of care towards a pupil. Whether the policy in question was the best course of action is debatable. But a young person was supported and cared for and that’s the most important thing.
I wonder. If my school had been this aware and responsive would I still be a self-harmer 25 years after I first began?