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Teaching about Self-Injury

Through Role Play 

For those who teach about spiritual care, whether in an institutional setting or within their own faith community, role play is an excellent way to introduce the primary concepts and issues related to NSSI in the classroom. For an introductory course on counselling and spiritual care which was team taught and shared amongst three facilitators, I was asked to write a role play on self-injury for the students to work through in class. I created characters that were very true to life, pulling from various case studies in family therapy journals that I had recently read. During the role play which lasts for one hour, the students who play the spiritual care providers (SCPs) work as a team providing care to the main character who self-injures and her very concerned friends. Each student is given a short synopsis of their character’s backstory who they will play for the hour, and the role play begins. Students act out their parts, and the SCPs work together to try different strategies for giving care. We call “time outs” frequently so the SCPs can form a huddle and discuss their next strategies for helping the main character, her friends and her family members.


What is fascinating about using this pedagogical method to teach about NSSI is that it provides multiple layers for students to reflect upon how they might provide future care for a young person who self-injures. Using a case study from a family therapy article that centres on a family with a self-injuring child as the basis for the role play enables students to literally act out a case example within the safety of the classroom, trying out various strategies for attending to the main character’s spiritual needs. At the end of the role play, we debrief for two hours and students are able to discuss what it was like to play the main character, her family members, friends and also what it was like to play the SCPs. At this time, the facilitator can raise important issues related to NSSI, and explain why roles were written the way they were. At this time, I am also able to answer any questions they students may have, such as important questions relating to how suicide and NSSI differ, the interpersonal struggles between family members and coping mechanisms. 

I currently have two versions of role plays available that address the self-injurious behaviours of a young person who identifies as female. One is a bit simpler with only four characters, and the other one is a bit more complex with seven characters. Please feel free to use them in class or for use with youth ministry teams! They are available below. 

Update November 2019: I have added a third role play that adds the young person with lived NSSI experience coming out as queer into the role play scenario. This version of the role play was recently used by the Fall 2019 Intro to Spiritual Care and Counselling class at Emmanuel college, and it was a great experience!


For more information on this pedagogical approach for teaching about SI, please see this article by one of my teaching mentors Dr. Pamela Couture: Couture, Pamela D. “Ritualized Play Using Role Play to Teach Pastoral Care and Counseling.” Teaching Theology & Religion 2, no. 2 (1999): 96–102.

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