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What Teachers Should Know about Self-Mutilation and Suicide

Updated on July 3, 2011

Definition of Self-Mutilation

Self-mutilation, also known as self harm and self injury, is defined as any sort of self-harm that involves inflicting injury or pain on one’s own body. Sadly, over 10% of teenagers are suspected to have at least experimented with self-mutilation.

Although commonly defined as cutting, self-mutilation doesn’t take just one form. It can also include hair puling, hitting, bruising, biting, head banging, picking the skin, branding or burning the skin, or cutting the skin with a knife or razor until pain is felt or blood has been drawn. Self-mutilation is more often seen in upper to middle class adolescent girls and women.

Causes of Self-Mutilating Activity

There are a number of triggers that can lead someone to self injury. They include:

  • low self-esteem
  • inability to control impulses
  • high levels of anger and anxiety
  • apparent inability to cope with difficult situations
  • underlying psychological conditions such as bipolar disorder or depression
  • a tendency towards hyper-sensitivity
  • feeling invisible or unaccepted by parents or peers

Signs of Self-mutilation

Signs that teachers and parents should be aware of include:

  • razors, knives, or other sharp objects hidden in strange locations, evidence that a teenager’s friends are self-mutilating,
  • long periods in restrooms, empty locker rooms or other secluded areas,
  • a reduced social circle or reluctance to attend social events,
  • reluctance to wear clothes that don’t hide legs and arms and the appearance of an abnormal amount of bruises or scars.

Prevention and Treatment of Self-Mutilation

There are several things that parents can do when their child has been discovered partaking in self injury. The most important thing is to not react with horror as most teens who struggle with self injury have low self esteem to begin with. It is important to spend time with your teen and make sure they don’t ever have the opportunity to feel invisible.

Teachers and administrators have a crucial role in the restoration of a child who self-mutilates. The best role for schools is to identify students who self-mutilate, refer them to and coordinate with community mental health resources, and offer safe, caring, and nonjudgmental support. It is also important to know your school procedures. Teachers and school administrators are mandatory reporters. Once identified, students are typically referred to the school nurse or mental health professional. Principals can help preserve students' physical and psychological welfare by improving awareness about the causes and signs of the behavior.

Unfortunately, self-mutilation appears to have a "contagious" effect among peer groups making it difficult to plan interventions and organize crisis teams. It may be helpful to formulate a student task force that advocates against self-mutilation among their peers, making it “cool” to not participate in self harm.

Suicide Statistics Amongst Teens

A common misconception is that those who self mutilate have the intention of committing suicide.Instead, often a student will self-mutilate in order to not commit suicide.However, suicide can be a result of self-mutilation and should not be overlooked.

Unfortunately, teen suicide is more prevalent of an issue than students should ever have to deal with.In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death in 11-18 year olds in the nation.Among the suicides that were completed, 63% of the victims exhibited psychiatric symptoms for a year or more.For every completed suicide, an estimated 8 to 25 attempts have occurred.The most common methods to commit suicide include overdoses, hanging, and firearms.

Statistically there appears to be certain at risk groups.First are males.Only one female dies by suicide for every four males.Secondly, American Indians and Alaskan natives have the highest adolescent suicide rate followed by whites.Suicide is also the leading cause of death among gay and lesbian youth.The states with the highest suicide rates include Alaska, New Mexico and Montana.The West is the region that has the highest number of suicides while the Northeast has the lowest.

In Connecticut specifically, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 11-21 year olds.A study done in 2005 reported that within the past 12 months:

  • 23% felt sad and hopeless enough over a two week period to halt usual activity.
  • 13% thought seriously about suicide.
  • 10% made a plan for suicide.
  • And 3% made a suicide attempt that required medical attention. (For a secondary education teacher who may have 100 students between 4 or 5 classes, that number is startling, knowing that 3 of your students required medical attention because they attempted to kill themselves.)

Early and Late Warning Signs of Suicide

Early warning signs that teachers and parents should be on the lookout include:

  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Marked personality change and serious mood changes
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulties in school
  • Change in eating and sleeping habits
  • Loss of interest in pleasurable activities and things one cares about
  • Frequent complaints about physical symptoms like stomach aches, fatigue, and head aches
  • Persistent boredom

Late warning signs which usually take place just prior to the attempt include:

  • Actually talking about suicide or a plan
  • Exhibiting impulsivity such as violent actions, rebellious behavior and escape
  • Refusing help
  • Complaining about being a bad person
  • Making statements about hopelessness, helplessness or worthlessness
  • Not tolerating praise or rewards
  • Giving verbal hints with statements
  • Becoming suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
  • Giving away favorite possessions
  • Making a will

In order to prevent suicide and self-mutilation, schools need to be informed about the needs of their students and be aware of those students who are at risk. The important thing is to always keep your eyes opened. It is also important to adopt a bullying and harassment prevention program for all grades k-12, and to adopt a curriculum that does not promote hatred and bias. Many of the unfortunate adolescent suicides could have been prevented had bullying been prevented.


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    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 3 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Hello Madeline,

      This is an excellent piece of writing. Amazing in every aspect of writing.

      I loved every word--and the lay-out was superb.

      Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it.

      Cudo's to you for sharing this life-saving information. And may God bless you richly.

      You have such a gift for writing. Just keep writing and good things are bound to happen to you.

      I cordially invite you to read one or two of my hubs, and be one of my followers.

      That would make my day.

      I am so honored to meet you.


      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • Madeline Madison profile image

      Madeline Madison 6 years ago from Anywhere and Everywhere. Home-base in CT

      Phil and Man, thank you for your comments. As a teacher, I may be the only healthy adult influence in a student's life. Unconditional love is a MUST in the classroom!

    • Man from Modesto profile image

      Man from Modesto 6 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)

      Agree. This is a great hub. Kudos.

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 6 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      It is a scary world that these teenagers are growing into - they definitely need all of the help they can get. Explicitly stating that 'non judgmental support' is needed is a key - what teen would respond to assistance from a person who has already decided the teen is hopeless.

      Excellent hub earning you both a vote-up and an awesome.

    • Madeline Madison profile image

      Madeline Madison 6 years ago from Anywhere and Everywhere. Home-base in CT

      As Christians who are teachers, I agree that it is our responsibility to be diligent in prayer over our students.

    • Man from Modesto profile image

      Man from Modesto 6 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine (formerly Modesto, California)

      Mutilation, suicide, depression... These are demonic forces acting against youth. God gives authority based on responsibility. Parents and teachers are given responsibility. YOUR prayers over them have great power. Speak with authority and command all evil forces to be off of them. To learn more, use these sites and teachers of deliverance:

      Win Worley

      Derek Prince