By Kealagh Robinson.
Adolescence is a critical developmental period for self-harm research and intervention. Self-injury, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal behaviours often begin during adolescence [1, 2], and adolescent self-harm predicts poorer psychological outcomes in adulthood [3, 4]. Many adolescents regularly attend secondary schools, making these pragmatic recruitment sites for adolescent research participants. Secondary schools themselves are important for understanding the broader context of adolescent self-harm, including how schools respond to student self-harm, and how they empower parents, caregivers, and friends to support students who self-harm. Discussion of the ethical considerations involved in conducting adolescent self-harm research in secondary school settings is available elsewhere [5, 6]. Here, I draw from eight years of experience working with secondary schools to share four practical tips with early career researchers considering self-injury and suicide research in secondary school settings.
Tip 1. Build and maintain relationships with schools
Building and maintaining relationships with school communities is vital. When approaching schools with a research request, expect to meet with both school senior leadership (e.g., school principal, deputy principal, school board) and the school’s mental health professionals. Following initial scoping conversations, it can be helpful to send a written executive summary that describes your research question(s) and rationale for those questions, and clearly details what you are requesting from the school and what support you will provide (e.g., risk assessment and follow-up). Remember that some schools may not have partnered with a research team before, while others may have had negative experiences with research, for example where researchers have broken trust or not fulfilled stated obligations.
Relationship building should also extend beyond senior leadership and school mental health professionals to include school staff, students, families, and broader school communities (e.g., indigenous elders, religious leaders, and youth workers). It can be helpful to meet with student- and family-led groups within the school or school community. This is especially important if your research focuses on a specific group of people, such as those in the LGBTQ+ community, indigenous young people, or those with a refugee background. A regular research team newsletter or scheduled meeting is a good way to keep in touch and share and celebrate important milestones in the research project.
Own the gaps in your knowledge and understanding—school communities are the experts on their own experiences. Reflect on the values and cultural practices that guide relationship building in your context. In Aotearoa New Zealand, our research team takes care to reflect manaakitanga (showing respect, generosity, and care through hospitality), for example by bringing biscuits to meetings with school staff. Practically, the process of setting up a research partnership with a school often takes several months (or years!). Start this process early—relationship building cannot be an afterthought.
Tip 2. Reduce the burden of participation (as much as possible)
Schools are busy places, often operating on stretched resources. Keep in mind that partnering with your research project takes resources away from other opportunities and adds administrative load for a school. Do your best to reduce the burden of research participation for students, school staff, and the broader school community, as much as is practical. This may involve keeping participation time as short as possible (e.g., focusing only on core research questions in surveys or interviews), organising student information packs by class list for easier distribution, or providing a ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ document for school administrators who may field questions about the project from parents and caregivers. Consider the unique needs of the school community. For instance, when members of our research group partnered with a school for teen parents, they provided research assistants during participant workshops to offer childcare support. Ask schools how you can best work around them.
Tip 3. Consider how schools can directly benefit from participation
Adolescents report receiving altruistic and increased self-awareness benefits from participating in ethically sensitive research . In addition to these individual benefits, consider how partnering with your research project might benefit the school community. Offers to facilitate psychoeducation workshops for school staff and parent and caregiver groups are often appreciated, as are workshops designed to facilitate wellbeing for students (e.g., managing perfectionism, coping with stress, tips for good sleep hygiene). A curated pack of resources providing guidance for schools, parents, and friends for responding to student self-harm might be useful (for useful self-injury resources, see [8, 9, http://sioutreach.org/, http://icsesgroup.org/resources). In my experience conducting longitudinal surveys in secondary schools, schools appreciate receiving individualised (de-identified) summaries of how their students are going. In some cases, these summaries have been used as evidence to support proposals for increased pastoral care availability in schools. Ask schools what might be helpful or appreciated in their community. Make sure to provide what you say you will and avoid promising what you can’t deliver.
Tip 4. Remain responsive
Finally, schools are dynamic systems, so working with secondary schools requires a responsive and flexible approach. Actively work to understand what’s happening at a school (this often relies on the genuine relationships you have built). School staff and senior leadership can have huge impacts on school culture, so changes in staffing, particularly in senior leadership, can create a time of tumult in which the burden of participation is higher than usual. Deaths in the school community, particularly suicide deaths, can be an incredibly difficult period for a school. In some instances it may simply be the wrong time for a school to take on the additional workload associated with research, so the best course of action is to postpone or cancel the research project. Despite challenges, I have found working with secondary schools to research adolescent self-harm a highly rewarding process and one that has given me the energy to weather the dips in motivation that no doubt occur in every thesis journey. I’m very happy to share tips and experiences with any early career researchers considering self-harm research in secondary schools to—feel free to get in touch for a chat!
- Nock, M. K., Green, J. G., Hwang, I., McLaughlin, K. A., Sampson, N. A., Zaslavsky, A. M., & Kessler, R. C. (2013). Prevalence, correlates, and treatment of lifetime suicidal behavior among adolescents: Results from the national comorbidity survey replication adolescent supplement. JAMA Psychiatry, 70(3), 300–310. https://doi.org/10.1001/2013.jamapsychiatry.55
- Plener, P. L., Schumacher, T. S., Munz, L. M., & Groschwitz, R. C. (2015). The longitudinal course of non-suicidal self-injury and deliberate self-harm: A systematic review of the literature. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 2(2). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40479-014-0024-3
- Daukantaite, D., Lundh, L.-G., Wångby-Lundh, M., Claréus, B., Bjärehed, J., Zhou, Y., & Liljedahl, S. I. (2020). What happens to young adults who have engaged in self‑injurious behavior as adolescents? A 10‑year follow‑up. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-020-01533-4
- Reinherz, H. Z., Tanner, J. L., Berger, S. R., Beardslee, W. R., & Fitzmaurice, G. M. (2006). Adolescent suicidal ideation as predictive of psychopathology, suicidal behavior, and compromised functioning at age 30. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(7), 1226–1232. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.2006.163.7.1226
- Lloyd-Richardson, E. E., Lewis, S. P., Whitlock, J. L., Rodham, K., & Schatten, H. T. (2015). Research with adolescents who engage in non-suicidal self-injury: ethical considerations and challenges. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 9(1), 37. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13034-015-0071-6
- Hasking, P. A., Lewis, S. P., Robinson, K., Heath, N. L., & Wilson, M. S. (2019). Conducting research on nonsuicidal self-injury in schools: Ethical considerations and recommendations. School Psychology International, 40(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/0143034319827056
- Hasking, P., Tatnell, R. C., & Martin, G. (2015). Adolescents’ reactions to participating in ethically sensitive research: a prospective self-report study. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 9, 39. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13034-015-0074-3
- Whitlock, J. L., Baetens, I., Lloyd-Richardson, E., Hasking, P., Hamza, C., Lewis, S., Franz, P., & Robinson, K. (2018). Helping schools support caregivers of youth who self-injure: Considerations and recommendations. School Psychology International, 39(3), 312–328. https://doi.org/10.1177/0143034318771415
- De Riggi, M. E., Moumne, S., Heath, N. L., & Lewis, S. P. (2017). Non-Suicidal Self-Injury in Our Schools: A Review and Research-Informed Guidelines for School Mental Health Professionals. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 32(2), 122–143. https://doi.org/10.1177/0829573516645563
Kealagh Robinson (@KealaghRobinson) recently submitted her PhD for examination. She works in the Youth Wellbeing Study and the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab in the School of Psychology at Te Herenga Waka (Victoria) University of Wellington in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and is a member of the International Consortium on Self-Injury in Educational Settings. Email: Kealagh.firstname.lastname@example.org.