How to coach through Self-Harm

I have, over the last six months, been working very intensively in a school with a group of young people, predominately girls. The reason they brought me in was to try and get them engaged again in education. All of these kids have been referred to CAMHS and are considered close to exclusion for various reasons. I have to admit, I took this project on initially a little apprehensively; it has been a good 13 years since I have worked with teenagers with such issues and in my coach training I have had it drilled into me that coaching isn’t therapy.

The first time I met these girls, nearly all of them were cutting themselves, some were talking about suicide, some were not eating and nearly all identified with being depressed. (Now, before you all start on me, none of them were at risk or in immediate danger; even those talking about suicide were talking and not contemplating and all the appropriate systems were put in place to support them.) I was surprised and a little overwhelmed at how many of them were self-harming.

It was at this point that I pulled from all my Choice Theory training and thanked God that I had trained in this method as well as coaching.


Choice Theory has many pillars that hold it up and one of the main ones is that we are not depressed, we choose to depress, as it is easier than choosing anything else or feeling the feeling we don’t want to feel. Similarly, we are not a self-harmer but choose to self-harm.

So, armed with this information I decided not to see the children in front of me as how they identified themselves, e.g. depressed, anorexic or self-harmer, but see them as they could be.


I decided that they didn’t need fixing; they just needed to understand why they choose this.


So when they sat in front of me and said things like, “I am depressed” I would ask, “What if you weren’t?” When they said, “I self-harm” I asked, “I wonder why such an amazing person would do that?” When they said, “I haven’t eaten for a week” I would say, “It would be so amazing if you could get over this and teach others how to get over it too”. I didn’t dwell upon the depression or cutting; while I acknowledged it was happening, I moved on. I refused to see them as they saw themselves, I refused to speak to the small part of them that did this and instead spoke to the big part of them that could get over it. At first, they looked at me very oddly, they wanted to tell me how bad and awful it was, they thought I was strange and like nothing they had ever met before. We cried, laughed, hugged made changes and sometimes just chatted. They opened up, they made progress and they dealt with things they didn’t think possible.

The other day, while back in the school one of the girls had gone through some really tough times and she had got through them really well. I asked what was the difference between what she did now and what she would have done before and she said, “Before, I would have cut myself to pieces, this time I just dealt with it.”

I am not telling you this to blow my own trumpet (although that is nice), I am telling you this to say that actually coaching can be a very effective tool where therapy looks like the only solution.  Coaching doesn’t ask the whys and wherefores, it just gets you to make small changes so you can take responsibility for your life and that is what these girls have done. They are truly amazing.

The other day I went to see a great film called A Long Way Down. It is about a group of people who met at the top of a building, all about to commit suicide on New Year’s Eve. It sounds depressing but it really is quite funny and heart-warming.  The story follows them through the first few months of the New Year and the relationships that blossom between the four. What does this have to do with my clients? In this film, they never really talk about their desire to commit suicide in great length, they don’t go through intensive therapy but they all manage to save each other in small ways, all ending up better from making friends with each other. This film covers some deep topics in a light-hearted way. And that is how I deal with my clients – I deal with some deep things in a light-hearted way, in a way that shows them that they can change, they can get to grips with this and they are better than whatever label they have put upon themselves.

Would love to hear your thoughts.