Addressing Self Injury in Youth Ministry
Self Injury Quick Reference Sheet
Self-injury is increasingly becoming a recognized problem in schools, churches, and other organizations serving youth. Teachers and non-teaching staff (in churches, primary schools, secondary schools, and universities,, youth outreach programs, sports teams, etc.) need a general understanding of self-injury, signs to look out for, and what to do if they become aware that a young person is self-injuring.
“Self-injury in middle and high school students should not be minimized or dismissed as “attention seeking” or “just a fad”. When people take the radical step of harming their bodies, they should be taken seriously and the sources of their stress addressed.” (Walsh, 2006, p.38)
Signs that someone is self-injuring:
People who self-injure often go to great lengths to conceal their injuries so it can be hard to know if a person does self-injure:
- People who self-injure can seem withdrawn or depressed.
- You may notice cuts or bruises that are always accompanied by excuses that don’t seem to fit.
- Many people who self-injure will cut their arms and so they may wear long sleeves, even when it is very hot.
- Within school and youth group, students who self-injure may look for excuses not to have to wear shorts or short sleeves and therefore may avoid activities like PE or swimming.
Particularly where younger children are concerned it is important to keep a close eye on especially vulnerable youth such as those with a history of abuse.
General advice for teachers:
- Listen to the student and try not to show them if you are angry, frustrated or upset. “Staff should learn that the best way to respond to common self-injury is with a ‘low-key, dispassionate demeanor’ and ‘respectful curiosity’ “(Walsh, 2006, p.245)
- Learn about the difference between self-injury and suicide.
- If someone tells you they self-injure it means they trust you and are willing to share this very personal problem.
- Some people will just want to be heard and empathized with. Try not to push them by asking questions that may overwhelm them.
Ensure that your school or church has a self-harm policy – guidelines for writing a policy and further information can be found at fringeconversations.com
Things for schools and churches to remember
- Anyone from any walk of life or any age can self-injure, including very young children
- Self-injury affects people from all family backgrounds, religions, cultures and demographic groups
- Self-injury affects both males and females
- People who self-injure can often keep the problem to themselves for a very long time which means opening up to anyone about it can be difficult
- You can’t just tell someone who self-injures to stop – it is not that easy. They often need counseling. Plus, when self-harm is a coping skill, stopping feels like you’re taking a life-preserver away from someone drowning.
- Self-injury is a secret and often isolating behavior. Helping the student re-establish meaning connection to peers and other safe adults will go a long way towards healing.
If you ever feel in over your head, PASS THE BUCK! Get the next level involved. If you don’t know how to swim, trying to save someone in the deep end of the pool will likely end with both of you drowning. Reach out to the parents of the student, counselors, social workers, pediatricians and nurses. There are usually trained people in your community that can help you and your student navigate these difficult water and guide you both to a place of healing. You can’t do it on your own and you are required to request the help of trained professionals. So… DON’T TRY TO BE A HERO!
Chris Schaffner is a certified addictions counselor working with chemically dependent ’emerging adults’ and is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.