Self-Inflicted - Teens Cry For Help

Melissa Edwards, Senior Reporter | 6 Opinions
Published: June 19, 2017 8:53 am AST
In recent months, officials at one government school were called to action when a student reportedly tried to take their own life. This is a worrisome case for the Virgin Islands, that represents a severe instance of a wider problem affecting several teens in various schools.

Jovan Cline, a Guidance Counselor at the Elmore Stoutt High School (ESHS), describes it as self-harm, that usually involves teens cutting themselves.

“Whether they express it to their friends, some with material to cut, some have done it in the past, some are doing it presently, some would talk about different ideas—whether cutting, depleting themselves of oxygen, stuff like that, or putting themselves in situations where they can take blame for their actions,” Cline told BVI Platinum News.

Since the problem involves minors, several persons we spoke with were very careful not to divulge certain information.

Sylvester Smith, another Guidance Counselor at ESHS said that at one stage, he had about 27 cases of self-harm.

“We have kids who self-harm in so many different ways. You have those who would use razors; they have taken staplers stapling themselves; taking ice and salt to burn themselves. A lot of that leads to another stuff."

Smith said, "You have those who are now posting their bodies---nude pictures on social media. Students are acting out, not knowing how to fit in and cope with situations.”

On The Rise

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Michael A. Turnbull of the Wellness Centre Behavioural Health Clinic, said that in the last couple of months, he has seen a rise in the cases.

Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Michael A. Turnbull
Photo Credit: Melissa Edwards/BVI Platinum News
“Even also speaking with Dr. June Samuel at the (Peebles) hospital, for what she has seen; (there is) a rise amongst teenagers, especially teenage girls, but there have been some cases of boys as well."

He said, "Weekly, I see 7 or 8 teenagers. That’s a lot and that’s not including the hospital and other agencies, or cases that are not even reported."

Dr. Turnbull noted that especially around test time, children who are going through particular stress, not just depression, but stress within their family life or with friends, are using negative coping mechanisms to deal with their stress.

“One of the trends that we have seen is self-harm behaviors, especially cutting, meaning using razors to make superficial cuts on their arms, legs, thighs, in an attempt to relieve pain."

He added, "Now it might sound like they are inflicting pain to relieve pain, but it’s kind of a way that teenagers use to cope and it always helps them to feel something. Like to make them release that hurt or pain, so they do it, but the problem with it, it's very addictive."

There have been extreme cases, according to Dr. Turnbull, recalling that he had seen a teen with 70 cut marks at one time.

“It's so significant that you don’t feel the child is safe enough to go back home. Instead, they might need to go to the hospital to monitor them; educate the family,” Dr. Turnbull noted.

Living The Experience

BVI Platinum News spoke with a single parent, whose daughter went through episodes of self-harm.

“I noticed a change in her behavior, the responses to me, to other family members, as well as the change in attitude towards school. She was 15 at the time,” said the parent, who could not be named in order to protect the identity of the child.

She said the behavior exhibited involved scraping herself with an object.

“I noticed that, so I said what is this? I didn’t receive an answer,” she recalled.

It hasn’t been an easy process for the parent.

“There have been many nights where I don’t sleep because I had to get up and check to see if she was okay. I had to check myself, because I needed to be strong so that she would have somebody to lean on. It meant personal sacrifices, it meant giving up the things that I had aspired to do at the time,” the parent related.

She said her daughter is making progress and is doing much better, in part due to the intervention of Dr. Turnbull.

“We don’t have as many sessions, but the connection is still there. The thing is, we are both able to manage, so she recognizes any change in mood and she takes the steps to rectify. I noticed the changes and you just say 'when you are ready to talk'. It’s somewhat a balance."

Her daughter is now 16.

"You have to recognize if it’s just an ordinary teenage mood, compared to another, and you can only know that if you communicate with your child…Simple as a change in handwriting…It's knowing your child,” the parent explained.

Leading to Suicide

According to Dr. Turnbull, often times, cutting can lead to more significant self-harm behaviour or more suicidal type behavior, because that is one way children think of using to deal with stress.

Locally, there have been cases of teens taking it the extreme of attempting suicide.

“If it’s not monitored and intervened enough, and the right approach is not used, it can continue to escalate because although they are using self-harm and cutting as a temporary relief from their pain, it doesn’t solve it and if that pain and stress continues, the pressure continues; conflict continues,” Dr. Turnbull stated.

He pointed out that self-harm and suicide are different. According to most teens who self-harm, they don’t want to take their life.

“They have no intention of ending their life. They just did it, it felt good…When you are feeling bad you want to do something that makes you feel good…The bad thing, just like adults who drink alcohol, smoke weed and engage in all other things, teenagers use this and this is becoming a phenomenon."

Dr. Turnbull explained, "…The thing about superficial cuts on the arm, it’s very additive, because you are tapping into the same part of the brain for pleasure and you are feeding into that…Because you are not using other coping mechanisms.”

Starts From The Home

According to Dr. Turnbull, some of the children are depressed and that is the way they are dealing with the sadness, worthlessness, thoughts of giving up and the guilt.

“When you talk to most of them, they cannot give you a reason why they have done it. Maybe they know friends that do it, heard about it, scratch themselves and say ‘oh I have some relief’. It’s kind of like almost a phenomenon, like when someone gets a tattoo; you don’t like the pain, but something about it gives you that feeling, but it's negative,” Dr. Turnbull noted.

When one digs deep, that’s when they find out that it starts from home, according to Guidance Counselor, Mr. Smith.

“Parent issues, and some kids have explained parents separation and how it affects them. They don’t tend to sit down with the kids and have the conversation…The students feel a certain way, talk to their other classmates; unfortunately, that is when you get classmates telling them how they deal with…So they are pretty much being told how to cope with situations in the wrong way,” said Smith, who is also part of ESHS Student Support.

In the high school, Cline stated that as unfortunate as it is in some cases, it gives school officials the opportunity to step a bit closer to a student, because sometimes people are closed off until they step out into the light.

“To some children, that is their way of stepping out into the light...Once they know that they have stepped out, they know they have revealed themselves...Then you get to approach them,” Cline explained.

He said it’s all about relationships and if a student knows that you care and it's genuine, they will be comfortable coming and talking to you about different situations.

According to Cline, building that relationship is key to getting them to that level where you can relate to them.

“I haven’t had a case where I began to speak to someone and they remained closed off…I have had many cases where I began to speak to someone and they close off, but over time they open up…Showing them I am not here to try to speak to you to judge you, to know your business, I just want to understand you,” Cline stated.

Parents Called Out

The view is that parents need to be more responsible and attentive to the needs of their children.

“What I would say to parents is first and foremost, know your child...Kids who slip through the cracks unnoticed is as a result of parents not knowing their child,” Cline stated.

He said parents give children too much leeway today, especially as it relates to social media.

Sylvester Smith, Guidance Counselor and of Student Support at Elmore Stoutt High School, with gadgets he uses to help break down the wall when speaking with students.
Photo Credit: Melissa Edwards/BVI Platinum News
“When you go on Facebook, you are not going to speak to people just in Tortola; it's people in Japan, Hong Kong. You have to think about the minds that are out there on social media,” he stated.

Dr. Turnbull said that with all the issues affecting teens, it will take a community effort and strategic planning as a Territory to boost the social health of children.

“Yes, we should look to the government, Ministry of Education and other agencies, but we just need to come up with a full strategic plan, because there are a lot of preventative things we can do,” Dr. Turnbull stated.

He cautioned parents not to get angry when confronted with self-harm problems. He said parents should look to see if their children are hoarding razors and look for the marks on their arms.

According to Dr. Turnbull, when parents see the marks, they respond by beating their kids, yelling at them, cursing them and lecturing them.

“Although that is the initial reaction because as a parent, you see that and you are scared, upset, but that will just cause them to hide it even more. Instead of them cutting their arm, they will start cutting on their inner thighs, or start wearing long sleeve shirts,” Dr. Turnbull said.

He added, “Don’t get angry; we know that is not an easy thing to do, but if you yell at the kid, curse them, they are just going to hide and they might stop cutting, but it doesn’t stop the self-harm, and that could lead to more secretive and more serious behavior."

He said, "So as a parent, you want to make sure to create an environment where you could talk to your children about what’s going on.”

He noted that sometimes the parents feel overwhelmed, but there are a number of professionals who are trained to help, including guidance counselors and psychologists.

There are also a number of resources which parents can also tap into online.

Self Cutting Guide

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