Matthew D. Selekman
Schools can reduce the likelihood of self-harming epidemics and manage student difficulties when they occur by following a few practical guidelines.
Student self-harming is one of the most perplexing and challenging behaviors that administrators, teachers, nurses, and counseling staff encounter in their schools. Approximately 14 to 17 percent of children up to age 18 have deliberately cut, scratched, pinched, burned, or bruised themselves at least once (Whitlock, 2009), with 5 to 8 percent of adolescents actively engaging in this behavior (J. Whitlock, personal communication, September 27, 2009).
Self-harming behavior is not a new phenomenon among adolescents. Mental health and health-care professionals have typically viewed such behavior as a symptom of an underlying psychological or personality disorder as a possible suicidal gesture suggesting the need for psychiatric hospitalization or as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by sexual or physical abuse.
However, both research and practice-based wisdom indicate that the majority of self-harming adolescents do not meet the criteria for diagnosable DSM-IV1 psychological or personality disorders, have never had suicidal thoughts or attempted to end their lives, and have never experienced sexual or physical abuse (Selekman, 2009). Most self-harming adolescents use the behavior as a coping strategy to get immediate relief from emotional distress.