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School leaders are reporting a rise in self-harm – here’s how to spot warning signs of students that might be at risk

With students increasingly feeling the strain from academic expectations, along with the pressures of the ever-growing digital world, self-harm has become a considerable concern for schools.

It’s an alarming issue. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10- to 24-year-olds, and since 2009, the number of 10 to 14-year-old girls receiving emergency care for self-inflicted injuries has climbed 18.8 percent per year.

This World Suicide Prevention Day, Smoothwall’s Online Safety Expert, Adele Abbiss, provides advice on how schools can spot the early warning signs of potentially vulnerable students.

The root of the problem

When questioned as to what school leaders believe is behind the worrying trend, 58% cited the impact of social media, while 55% believed cyberbullying was a contributing factor, and 45% and noted the readily accessible online content promoting self-harm.

Additional factors included exam pressure (37%), poor digital well-being (32%), and a comparison culture that promotes unrealistic body image expectations (29%).

With such emphasis now placed on assessment, students are increasingly feeling pressure both in and out of the classroom to achieve academic success. But the reality is students can only achieve the best of their ability and for some, this may lead to feelings of inadequacy.

Team this with the pressures created from the online space, and these feelings of inadequacy can integrate into other aspects of their lives, from the way they look to the activities they do.

Understanding the new ways students cope with feelings

Smoothwall’s research also uncovered that 58% of young people admit to having a bad experience online at least once every week. And when asked how students cope with their feelings following these experiences, less than half admitted they would feel comfortable turning to their parents, while only 10% admitted they would turn to a teacher.

In contrast, 79% of headteachers believed that students would approach themselves or another member of teaching staff if they felt concerned about a negative online experience, exposing a worrying disjoint between students and teachers.

When reporting their chosen methods to deal with their feelings, 31% of students admitted they would talk to their friends online in order to feel better. Other emerging trends included writing their thoughts down on the computer, turning to social media, and searching online for others that feel the same way.

With so few students opting to confide to teachers, it’s important that school leaders and teaching staff are fully equipped to be able to spot the signs of self-harm so that the issue can be treated at the earliest stage possible.

Spotting the risks

It can be difficult for teachers to spot the subtle signs of self-harm within their classes. Some signs that teachers should look out for that could indicate a vulnerable student include; unexplained injuries, wearing excessive clothing even during warm weather or exercise, unexplained changes in behavior, changes to weight, or eating small or excessive amounts at mealtimes.

However, another way in which schools can pick up signs a child may be at risk of self-harm is by looking for digital behavior that may show signs of vulnerability. Children may start to show indicators that they might be developing a problem through digital activity including; internet searches about self-harm and suicide, discussions on online chat or forums, looking at social media sites that glamorize self-harm and suicide or expressing self-hate language in text documents.

The role of threat detection technology

Through effective filtering and scanning tools, software providers can not only prevent children and young people from accessing potentially harmful material in the first place, but can also send risks to the school designated safeguarding lead if a student has shown any alarming signs, such as attempting to access harmful material, or typing out alarming search terms.

Sometimes these alerts may even appear from concerned peers writing to each other or looking at ways to help a friend. When a designated administrator is alerted, they can intervene and start to put measures in place to support a student. Sometimes, the alerts that are created may be time-critical, however a best practice threat detection system will work in real-time so that designated admins are informed immediately and are able to act instantly to ensure the safety of the student.

For further in-depth information about the role of threat detection technology, how it can support schools to protect students from mental health concerns, and how it can be successfully integrated into your school safety plans, download our free whitepaper – Reducing School Violence with threat detection technology.

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