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Self-harm: Parents' experiences

School's role in helping young people who self-harm

Many young people who self-harm are still at school. Sometimes school staff are unaware that the self-harm is taking place, but when it is recognised the school’s approach to pastoral care is very important. 

Some parents we spoke to found their child’s school very helpful. Staff were 'wonderful' to Liz’s daughter after her overdose and they worked with Liz to help manage her daughter’s eating disorder. The school also supported Liz’s younger daughter. Jane Z’s daughter was allowed to work in the library when she couldn’t deal with lessons, and the school was willing to try Jane’s suggested strategies. Charles said his son’s school was helpful in managing his need for time off, but he wondered how long this would continue.
 

Both schools that Erica’s daughter attended were ‘amazing’ in their support of her.

Both schools that Erica’s daughter attended were ‘amazing’ in their support of her.

Age at interview: 48
Sex: Female
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And how about the school? Were they supportive?

Yeah, the school were really, really supportive. She went to a school, when she was taken ill, and they were amazing. They were really amazing. When she went back there was a, I think she was the deputy head of year, who was really on my daughter’s side and very caring for her and if she needed something, she was there for her. My daughter could come out of lessons and spend time in their room if she wanted time out. She then changed schools. She went to a small independent school, for various reasons, because she wasn’t coping at the school she was at. She was actually wasn’t so we I made the decision that she move to this other school. I feel very fortunate that there were the resources to pay for it and they’ve been amazing too. We went there. We decided not to say too much because that’s what my daughter wanted but it came to a point, because she wasn’t doing very well, where we had to explain and they’ve been hugely supportive of her too. 

And that’s partly why she’s doing so well now.
 

Sandra and the school communicated very well. Sandra thinks it is important for all parties to be aware when children are vulnerable.

Sandra and the school communicated very well. Sandra thinks it is important for all parties to be aware when children are vulnerable.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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I mean the school, obviously, communicated well with me and I with them so there was a good communication line going and times when she was self-harming, in the early days, I didn’t know what to do. I was despairing putting my professional work aside and just being a mum, I had to obviously, consult with the school and let them know, obviously, she’s had a bad night or she self-harmed last night but, however, she’s coming to school off her own steam, not from any pressure from myself, just be alert, just observe, you know. And they would do that and they would report to me at the end of the day or the end of the week to let me know she’s had a good week. So at least there was some communication and some dialogue going, because I think in in cases where children are self-harming that has to happen so that all parties are aware and they are on full alert and because the young people are so vulnerable. 
 

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Jane S appreciated the support she had from her daughter’s school. Staff took pressure off her and made allowances when she couldn’t wear her games outfit because of her cuts. They were understanding when another parent complained about their child being exposed to Jane’s daughter’s self-harm. Her daughter’s tutor ‘really liked her and he understood enough and he supported her and stood by her.’ Jane said, ‘It was so important to me that he would ring me to find out how I felt she was doing and to support me a bit.’ Other parents also told us about particular people who had helped their child at school. Sarah Z and Joanne both valued the support of school nurses. A form tutor was ‘the main point of support and help’ for Jane Z’s daughter, but he wasn’t officially allowed to offer advice.
 

A teacher was very supportive of Jane Z and her daughter but was told he couldn’t offer advice because he had not been trained in counselling.

A teacher was very supportive of Jane Z and her daughter but was told he couldn’t offer advice because he had not been trained in counselling.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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My eldest daughter had a, her form tutor through school was brilliant, very, very good. She was very lucky, to have his sort of support all the way through, and inevitably, he then got to know my youngest daughter as well, and, and, actually, he turned out to be the member of staff that she’s turned to. 

And I think if any single person has made the biggest difference, it’s been him. And it is back to this point of, somebody who can be trusted, who when they ask a question, the way they ask questions, the way they talk, isn’t done in a way that feels like an interrogation, or feels like being patronised, or feels as if it’s adding to the pressure. Somehow has managed to do it in a way, that is very supportive and helpful. But, his position as, as a school teacher makes that, support virtually impossible, and we’ve been incredibly lucky with the school’s approach, over the last couple of years because, actually, they’ve allowed us to, to, to make the running, to say what we need. And they have done whatever we’ve asked them to do, which has been absolutely extraordinary, and I understand, quite unusual. But they trusted us to say, “This is what needs to be done the next step. This is what needs to be done the next step.” 

But, because this one teacher has been the main point of support, and, and help, he’s obviously found it quite difficult himself, because it puts him under an awful lot of emotional pressure. And it’s difficult for him to find the help he needs, to, to do it, because he hasn’t had, had the counselling training, and all of those sorts of things. So, you know, the main support manager in school, has had to say to him, or did say to him, fairly early on in this sort of process, “You’ve got to back off. You are not allowed to give any advice.”

“You’re not allowed to offer any opinions. You can listen and, basically, that’s it.” So, actually, that’s been quite difficult, because that’s made, in some ways, the position more difficult for him, and, even though you know we can sort of say, “We, we trust your judgement, we know you well enough that the advice you’re going to offer is going to be right.” He just isn’t allowed to, and, and that’s been difficult because, when that’s the only person she’s prepared to listen to, it’s very isolating. 
A few parents were unhappy with the school’s approach. Ruth thought staff were unsympathetic and didn’t help her daughter, who had problems with pain as well as self-harm. Ruth said, ‘The school practically wrote her off and really were only concerned about her attendance.’ Susan Y told us ‘The school really didn’t know what to do, they didn’t know how to deal with it. They just brushed it under the carpet.’ Mary thought her son’s problems had started when he was bullied at school and the school authorities didn’t tackle it. When she and her husband complained, the school denied there was any bullying. Pat’s daughter was also bullied and he was very angry about the school’s refusal to deal with it. However Pat did think the school pastoral care was good. 
 

Pat was angry about his daughter’s school’s attitude to bullying.

Pat was angry about his daughter’s school’s attitude to bullying.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Male
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And what is the school’s attitude to it all?

[Laughs] difficult. How big is your beeping machine?

[Laughs.]

Poor. They’re in, in denial but they have been for a long time. They’re were a very successful grammar school, this, some of this is going to go down like a lead balloon, and their catchment area isn’t as good as it used to be, shall we say, so they’ve got a lot more characters. Luckily, the head has just changed and they’re trying to be a lot more robust, but they don’t uphold the school uniform, therefore, you’ve got a general lack of discipline. Luckily, or unluckily, I know a worker that who went in there about a week, week and a half afterwards to introduce herself in connection with the local hub and they said, “No, we don’t have any problems at all.” 

Now, perhaps they hadn’t had enough attempted suicides that week, I don’t know. I mean that’s how I see it, very ironic and I happened to see her, possibly that night, the night after she’d been in and I said, “Oh, I need to talk to you. I’ve got such problems and I don’t understand.” And her mouth just fell open. They are in, they had not mentioned anything. But I do wonder, to be fair, whether they have the training.

It’s very easy for me to get very angry [laughs] and I do get very angry but I wonder you get made head of year and what have you been trained in to be head of year, and I was really pleased that they had no policy for dealing with this really, because I can’t think of anything worse than sitting down and thinking, “Right, we’ve got, I’ve got seven or eight hundred pupils, the way things are nowadays, two a year are going to try and attempt suicide. What are we going do?” That that’s not teaching to me, if you know what I mean, but not only did they seem to have no policy, anything that’s in place by the county council about bullying, they’re not very keen, in my opinion, to follow up. 
Susan Y and Tam talked about the amount of self-harming in their daughter’s schools. Susan Y was told “It happens all the time in this school. Don’t worry about it.” “Well, actually, you should be worrying about it,” she responded, “and you should be worrying about it for every pupil you’ve got in your school.” Tam said self-harm was very common in her daughter’s school. When Tam spoke to us her daughter had been told by other girls that the school counsellor wasn’t very good; since then she has started seeing the counsellor once a week and is enjoying it. She first harmed herself when living with her father in America, where the school saw self-harm as ‘a big deal’. The heads of the school were involved, ‘they were calling her dad and having her stay home and things like that.’ 
 

Tam contrasts the attitude of teachers in the UK and America towards self-harm.

Tam contrasts the attitude of teachers in the UK and America towards self-harm.

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
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She goes to a really good school and I know they have counsellors there but she says they’re not very good. I think the big difference is, is that the school she goes to apparently a lot of the girls do it. It’s very prevalent and I think a lot of the teachers know about it and I think they don’t treat it as the big deal that it was treated in America because I think in America it’s more seen as trying to kill oneself. Whereas here, I think it’s seen as trying to cope with pain or depression or.

So it’s different. 
Parents were worried about their child having to take time off school and falling behind with their work. Some, like Charles and Ruth, arranged private tutoring for their child at home. In a few cases the child’s school work was badly affected. Jim’s daughter’s education was disrupted: ‘The school said she was pretty bright and she would have gone on to a respectable university, possibly Oxbridge, then all of a sudden that’s just gone and you have to keep reminding yourself that’s a detail and we have to focus on getting her better. And the education can follow or not in the fullness of time.’ Tracey’s son didn’t get the exam results he hoped for. Tracey said ‘his self-esteem was at absolute rock-bottom and this has been a real factor with the self-harming.’ He is now at college where he has a supportive tutor. However several parents told us how well their children were doing academically. Erica said her daughter is ‘doing very well, getting good results, wants to go to university, which is amazing. And because she’s a determined thing, once she stopped being determined about killing herself, she was determined to do well at school. So she’s really getting there.’ Alexis and Jane S’s daughters did ‘brilliantly well’ in GCSE exams. Vicki told us her daughter was ‘doing fine at school. Her effort grades are amazing. She’s in all her top sets and just doing fantastically.’
 

Joanne’s daughter was an A star student but after she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital her education stopped.

Joanne’s daughter was an A star student but after she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital her education stopped.

Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
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Yes, so is she at school most, when she’s not in the hospital?

No, she hasn’t been to school for two years. She was an A star student at a grammar school but no, nothing, had nothing. She does like art and she has used that to express herself but no, the education has stopped altogether.

So when she’s not in, being admitted, what, she lives here and.

She’s been here, yes. She has been going to the hospital school but only for two hours once a week but that has stopped now as well so yeah, no education, not even, she’s not even been able to do it via the internet. She’s just, it’s the least of her worries at the moment, which is a shame.
 

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Schools can play a role in increasing understanding of self-harm. Sarah Z and Nick were very impressed by a psychiatrist who had been invited by the school to talk to parents about self-harm. Some of the parents we spoke to suggested ways schools could improve (see ‘Messages to health services and schools’). Tracey thought schools should be more aware of the problem and have specialist services in place. Susan Y said schools should include mental health issues in the curriculum, Sarah Y wanted more education on the dangers of overdoses and Jane Z thought there should be lessons on how to spot warning signs of distress.

Last reviewed December 2017.
 

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