Sara felt unsure and afraid while she was an undergraduate at the University. She cut long slits into her thighs to relieve the stress and anxiety, but instead of feeling better, she felt more alone. She didn’t know where to get help and was afraid of being misunderstood.
Sara’s story is a common one. Self-harm is widely considered to be a growing problem among adolescents, young adults and college students. Self-harm is the intentional destruction of body tissue without the intent to die. Like Sara, those who self-harm rarely seek treatment. They are afraid of being institutionalized, marginalized and demonized. Self-harming people have been treated poorly by healthcare professionals due to a lack of understanding and knowledge. This lapse in treatment must be addressed at the University of Michigan. The Counseling and Psychological Services administration must add information to its webpage about self-harm and its treatment, as well as developing the University’s philosophy on how self-harming individuals will be treated .
CAPS does not list any specific treatment or information about self-harm. Having access to information regarding how self-harm behavior is treated and understood is important when trying to provide for those who participate in this stigmatized behavior.
A multitude of descriptive pages on the CAPS website exist. These pages include information regarding the help groups available and a variety of treatment philosophies. Depression, anxiety, suicide, eating disorders, substance use, sexuality and racial issues are addressed — CAPS offers information as well as a variety of treatment options. Even with the wide range of present topics, self-harm is excluded.
Providing specific information will help self-harming individuals feel more comfortable and welcomed at CAPS. A study by researchers Michelmore and Hindley in 2012 found that self-harming individuals are less likely to seek help than their non-harming peers with other mental health issues. A 2009 study found that self-harming behavior predicted poorer school performance and higher rates of suicidal thoughts. These facts amplify the necessity to have comprehensive information to persuade students to seek treatment.
The DSM V — the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders — acknowledges self-harm as a separate condition prevalent in mid- to late-adolescence and continuing to reach its peak in both severity and frequency during a person’s 20s. A study by researchers Whitlock, Eckenrode and Silverman revealed that nearly 17 percent of undergraduate and graduate students reported harming themselves.
Self-harm is a complex issue that should have its own University webpage. This would allow students to seek more information and assuage their anxieties about treatment. On this page, there should be a list of philosophies about self-harm. This will provide self-harming individuals with an idea of how the counselors view their behavior. Specifically, the University should use Deb Martinson’s 1998 Bill of Rights for People Who Self-Harm, in which Martinson delineates ten main values that guide self-harm treatment.
The self-harm specific CAPS webpage should also display information on available groups that address self-harm. If a group specifically addressing self-harm doesn’t already exist, CAPS should establish one. Targeted groups foster a sense of community and aid in reducing the isolation, shame and stigma around self-harm. Lastly, this page should provide emergency contacts — such as 800-DONTCUT — where students can seek self-harm-specific support.
Adding information and philosophies of treatment for self-harm to the webpage would be an effective and inexpensive way to reach self-harming students. If changes are not made, rates of self-harm will most likely continue to rise. Students may continue to feel unsure of counseling services and therefore won’t seek help, possibly putting their lives and academic careers at risk. Adding a category of self-harm to the CAPS website could change the future for many students who have felt their mental health concerns do not have a place on campus.
Emily Geister-Danville is a graduate student in the School of Social Work.