Sunday, 2 September 2012

Self-Harming Teens [Image Included- Trigger Warning]

I was a brand new ALT, in the classroom for less than a month. A student had her head down on folded arms, ignoring the activity going on around her. Assuming she was sleeping, I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her a question. She raised her tear-streaked face, and the arms it had been resting on were red with fresh razor cuts. The question caught in my throat and I stood stupidly staring down at her until the boy next to her said something… I don’t remember what, something like “leave her alone”, and answered the question for her. I was very new. I was still religiously avoiding speaking any Japanese in front of the students (one of the more harmful absolutes impressed on new ALTs: “you must NEVER speak Japanese in front of students!!!” irrespective of the vastly different circumstances each ALT lives and works in). I didn’t know this girl. I didn’t know what to do. She graduated seven months later and I never talked to her about it. I tried to seek her out at lunch time; tried to make it clear in my awkward newbie way that I was a friend if she needed one. She found it funny and a bit strange. She was a rhythmic-gymnast. She ate nothing at lunch time except konnyaku, a jelly-like substance which takes more calories to chew and digest than it contains. Her bones were showed sharply through her skin. Her cuts covered her arms from wrist to elbow.
When she graduated she gave me a hand-made card. She said that my smile made her happy. I only saw her once after that. She was in the supermarket, wearing a baggy tracksuit, grocery shopping with her three-year-old brother on one hip. She ran over to me beaming, then after quickly getting to the end of her English vocabulary she stood awkwardly for a little while before saying goodbye. I’ve thought about her often. I hope that she is OK. I think about what I could have said, what I should have done. I thought about how I would handle the situation differently now.
Last year, a week after the end of the summer holidays, another ninth grade girl. Her cuts were crossed from one side of her arms to the other, not running lengthwise, but deep. And very fresh. This time, I didn’t keep it to myself. This time, right after the class finished, I spoke to the teacher.
“She has cuts on her arms” I said. “Is she OK? Do you know if anything is going on at home perhaps?”
A teacher I respect. An inspirational teacher. A teacher I learn something new from every day.
“I see” she said. And covering her mouth she leaned into my ear conspiratorially and whispered “actually, I heard that over the summer she bleached her hair! That’s the kind of student she is.”
There are so many things that I love about schools in Japan. The way students who self-harm are dealt with is not one of them. A system that sees hair dye as a serious issue but the urge to mutilate one’s flesh as of passing interest is a system that lets kids down when they need to be visible. This is not to say that Australia deals with it well either.
Eight years ago I was on a bus in Hobart. A teen-aged boy got on, arms cross-crossed with old white scars and fresh red lines. When I got off I dropped a note in his lap: “I saw your arms. If you want to talk, here’s my email.” He did. We emailed back and forth for quite a long time. He said that no one had ever brought it up: not at school, not at home, not his friends. People looked away. He felt invisible. He only felt alive when he saw himself bleeding.
Last term, an eighth-grade boy unpinned a giant safety pin from his bag and stuck it into his arm, pulling up the skin and wiggling it in deep. “He shouldn’t have something that dangerous at school” I said to the teacher. The boy is troubled. I don’t know what his family circumstances are, but he hasn’t had new shoes in a year and his toes poke through. His jacket is second-hand and too small, his trousers are torn and stained and several sizes too big. He is violent to other students and destructive of property. Why he was allowed to bring sharps into class is beyond me, but apparently that is just my weird foreign way of thinking. The teacher shrugged. The boy held his bleeding arm over his worksheet until he had enough blood on it to cover the page. Then he wandered out of class and didn’t come back. No one went to look for him.
Again, the could have, should have thoughts. Three years and I still haven’t found an answer.
Share this article :


  1. Wow. Thanks so much for writing and sharing this. I didn't come across this at my first two schools (over the course of a year and a half), though I did wonder about some of the students, and I know others were having problems at home and such. It's incredibly sad to see. I befriended some of them, and I still have relationships with some of them to this day, which I hope has helped somewhat.

    I know what you mean about speaking Japanese and all - I'm not fluent, buy my husband is, and I always tell him it's such an amazing thing that he is able to use that to connect with the students much more so than I've been able to. We did it in the US when we spent years working with kids, and we see the same faces, same eyes, same cries for help all around us.

    It's difficult, no doubt, and how do you help when you're not even sure exactly where your place is and the people who's place it IS don't do anything? That's one I've still been trying to figure out as well...

    1. It is really hard. With self harm the reasons are pretty personal and complicated. Obvious;y the situation with the boy recently was very different to the two girls. I can understand teachers not knowing how to deal with it, but I cannot understand no one treating it as important.
      When it comes to children who are victims of domestic violence I also have difficulty with the way teachers respond; although after having spent more time researching orphanages I understand a little better. The general attitude (where I work, I wouldn't want to claim this as a nation-wide policy or anything) seems to be that unless it is life-threatening, the disadvantage a child faces after being removed from parental custody is so severe that it's better for them to simply endure the violence.
      If you find an answer, please do share it.

  2. Sorry to comment on a very old post, but this is important. Please, please give a warning near the top of the page if you are going to show such pictures. Many people who self-harm, myself included, can be triggered by those images. If there is a warning, I can decide if it will be safe for me to read this post at all, or come back to it when I'm in a better state, or mentally prepare myself so I'm not caught off guard.

    This is especially important in a place where you might not expect the topic of self-harm to come up at all, since a person is less prepared for it. Please consider adding a warning and/or using warnings in future posts, it truly helps a LOT to improve the accessibility of your blog. Thank you for reading and considering my suggestion! I really like reading through your blog.

    1. Thank you for commenting, I will do that now... I had thought about it when I first wrote the post, but I assumed that the title would act as enough warning. I'm sorry to have caused you pain.

  3. You can blame your vicious fellow white race, the Australian and American maggot, paedophile soldiers who raped tens of thousands of Japanese women during the Occupation, snatching girls and women from their homes whose screams could be heard 'all night' (Yuriko Tanaka, 'Japan's Comfort Women', 2002), your fellow white man Douglas Macarthur for banning on pain of prison aptly reporting on such rapes in the press, and that same human Margot's stated at in occupying Japan of 'destroying everything that made the Japanese, Japanese ' ao thst they never, ever posed a risk to white domination again, for the dysfunctional, aimless, hyper-selfish society Japan has become.


Because of all the spam lately, comments on old posts will now be moderated. This means it may be some time before your comment appears. You can always email me directly, check the contact page for details.