Austin Public School Counselors Aren’t Discouraging Self Harm. They’re Doing The Opposite.

By Gelsomina Meglino | Austin, Texas

When you love someone, you want the best for them. When they trust you with something they are struggling with, you do everything in your power to help them reach a better state. Whether it be bringing them comfort food to their house or checking up on them a few times a day to make sure they are okay, you do anything you can to make them feel loved and supported. However, if you are not quite an adult like me, there is a limit as to what you could do. Let me explain.

I am a student at Westlake High School. Westlake is one of the best academic public schools in the US, and many of my peers are very privileged. Despite minor complaints, most of our teachers are actually pretty great. A lot of my teachers actually care about me; they not only teach, but they also counsel many of us. I would say our teachers counsel better than the support counselors themselves. Here’s why:

I have a close friend, let’s call her Emma. Emma is a couple of years younger than me, and as she started trusting me more and more with events in her life, I started to look at her as if she were my little sister. I kind of felt like I took her under my wing; I always kept an eye on her to make sure she was okay. I love her so much.  

A few months ago, Emma told me that she’s been suffering from stress, anxiety, and panic attacks and that the way she had been coping with it was self-harm. She told me that her body craved to feel the cuts and that whenever she got anxious she turned to cutting. She also told me that she knew that it’s not good to cut and that she wanted to stop. She reached out to me for help. And I did everything I could to help her.

I started by telling her to distract herself from cutting by doing different things like listening to music, watching Netflix, writing thoughts down, working out, running, etc. I also encouraged her to tell her parents, but at first, she was reluctant. She was the oldest of 5, and her parents were loaded with different responsibilities, so, unfortunately, she didn’t feel like she could trust them. Yet, I still encouraged her to talk to them because I knew her parents loved her and that her parents would want to help her.

After a couple of months, she told her parents. They did their best to help her, but they didn’t approach it the right way. There were many times when Emma would text me that she felt, for one reason or another, that her anxiety got worse. She started to cut more. One morning I got a text from her that said that the previous night had gone bad. At that moment when I read her texts, I realized that I couldn’t help Emma alone. I had done everything I could do. I was scared. I had done my best to help her, but now I needed more help. I didn’t know what else to do, but I couldn’t just let Emma keep cutting and hating herself. So, that morning, I went to my guidance counselor at school and told her about “my friend who’s been going through a lot of anxiety and has been cutting. I don’t know how to help her anymore, and I’d contact her parents but I don’t have their information. Emma really needs to see a counselor.”

So, my counselor had the support counselors call Emma to their office. I didn’t have a class with Emma until after lunch, so I didn’t hear any feedback until later in the day. However, I felt reassured and safe. “Emma is gonna be okay,” I thought. “I should have told the counselors ages ago.” Boy, was I wrong.

Walking to class, I was a bit nervous to see Emma because I didn’t know if she was going to appreciate my actions. However, as I walked into class, I saw Emma on the other side of the room at our desks as usual, except today she seemed a little more upbeat.

“So, the counselor called me in today,” she started.

“Oh, cool, how was it?” I asked, relieved and thankful that she seemed happy and chill about it.

“So I told her about cutting and stuff, and apparently cutting is a healthy coping mechanism for anxiety, so it’s okay to cut.”

I was shocked. I couldn’t believe my ears. A rush of betrayal, anger, and frustration rushed into my chest and my ears felt hot. How could a school support counselor tell a student that cutting is okay and that “if it’s distracting from having panic attacks, it’s good?” I was furious. Surely, there must have been a miscommunication.

So, I immediately stood up from my desk and went to the counselor’s office. I asked the two ladies which one of them talked to my friend, and then I confronted them. I was mad, yet I had hope that there was some sort of miscommunication. That Emma was blind and the counselor said something completely opposite. But, to my shock, the counselor told me in a calm, informative voice that “it’s not a healthy way to cope [with anxiety], but it is a way to cope with anxiety and to keep from doing worse.” I made it clear to her that my friend got the message that it is okay and healthy to cut, and then she told me, still in the same nonchalant voice, that she would “clear it up with her, but it’s better than doing something worse, and it breaks her out of her panic attacks.” I was furious, and I couldn’t comprehend why, of all people, a support counselor at a public school would convey to anyone that cutting is better than doing something worse. Her tone was calm and not concerned at all. I felt like she told me “she could be doing worse right now, so she should stick with cutting.” That morning, I went about my day feeling relieved that Emma was going to get “real” help. Instead, I felt like she was encouraged to cut even more.

This isn’t acceptable. How would Emma’s parents feel knowing that the counselor at the school told their beloved child that it is okay to cut? How many other kids have been told this? There are so many fatal risks to self-harm. One could easily cut an artery without meaning to. It’s an extremely dangerous situation if we’re thinking about it seriously. Self-harm is not a good coping mechanism, it is a sign that something is wrong. What would happen if parents of Westlake students found out this counselor told my friend this? As unfortunate as it is, some kids really don’t have any adult to trust and the people they do turn to are the support counselors. How many other counselors in the US are out there telling students it’s okay to cut?

I would like to make it clear that the intent of this post is not to attack Westlake High School. I have kept the mentioned individuals anonymous. I wish I could say this situation is only happening at my school, however, I have no doubt that it is happening elsewhere, and that is not acceptable. I am sharing my story because I believe this cannot remain a private corruption. There must be a change.

Editor’s note: This is a guest contribution to 71 Republic. We share it because we believe that it is the duty of the media to hold government-funded services accountable, and it is the responsibility of the press to make known instances of possible corruption.