Self-harm: Parents' experiences


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.
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 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. 
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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.’ 
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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.’
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.

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