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Social workers need training to help them better understand self-harm

It is estimated that one in 12 young people have self-harmed at some point in their lives, according to charity YouthNet. The charity says 3,000 people aged 16 to 25 visit its digital support service TheSite.org every month after looking up self-harm on a search engine. Yet, despite these statistics, self-harm awareness training for social workers is not always as comprehensive as it could be.

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer (England), at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), says while some social workers – such as those working in mental health – may be sensitive to the issue of self-harm, there needs to be more awareness of the problem within the profession and that self-harm training is patchy.

“Whatever client group you work with, it will be a feature – it [self-harm training] should be integral because you are working with people whose lives are in crisis – there is a high correlation between the people you work with and people with a propensity to hurt themselves,” she says.

“Social workers need a greater awareness of the issue and need to understand why people self-harm. I wouldn’t lump everyone together, but it can be the impact of trauma, it can be a cry for help, it gives someone, who may have had control taken away from them, a sense of control.”

What mistakes could a social worker who lacks awareness of the issue of self-harm make? “An untrained person may have a tendency to look at the superficial and not go beyond that,” Mansuri says. “A social worker may be out of their comfort zone and not be able to deal with it – dealing with someone’s raw pain is really hard.”

Mansuri adds that social work “doesn’t have all the answers” when it comes to self-harm and that more education is required. “There is an underestimation of the importance of looking at self-harm,” she says.

Jennifer McLeod, managing director of self-harm training provider Step Up! International, says in some regions self-harm training for social workers is inadequate.

“Social workers ought to be trained in spotting the signs; if they aren’t spotted, it could be fatal,” she says. “It’s about listening to what’s not being said, looking for physical signs and emotions – they [people who self harm] are generally hiding something.”

McLeod adds that well-trained social workers will broach the topic with the young people and their families. “There might be denial from parents and social workers will have to find ways of eliciting information from young people.”

McLeod says delegates at Step Up! International training courses are often in a state of panic about the issue as they are uncertain about how to deal with the problem or even broach the subject.

“Some professionals don’t feel confident about bringing up the issue directly, they daren’t ask about it as they think it might make it worse”, she says.

McLeod suspects self-harm is on the increase – and is being talked about more – because of the current economic climate.

“In addition to the emotional and biological changes [young people experience], there is the recession, labour market issues, parents being made redundant – parents may not be managing and may be economically struggling,” she says.

Caroline Hattersley, head of information, advice and advocacy at theNational Autistic Society (NAS), says people with autism face a “raft of challenges” that might make self-harm more likely.

“Autism does bring specific difficulties – we’d like to see more training on understanding autism and its relation to self harm,” she says. “The key is understanding the individual and understanding the underlying causes.” Lacking this understanding could lead to a social worker misinterpreting why someone is self-harming, Hattersley adds.

“The individual might not have done it before, they may be hitting their head because they may have communication difficulties and they’re trying to communicate a physical problem – you might miss an ear infection,” she says.

Hattersley acknowledges that it can be difficult for professionals to admit they are struggling with the issue of self-harm. NAS has set up Network Autism, a forum where professionals can read research, and discuss with each other, the issue of self-harm and how it relates to people with autism.

YouthNet’s chief executive Emma Thomas says all practitioners working with people who self-harm would benefit from a better understanding of the problem. She adds: “If social workers are more aware of services like TheSite.org, many more young people can be directed to safe, anonymous online support to complement the vital offline support they need.”