A Nursing Professor Tells A Student That Her Self-Harm Scars Are Inappropriate

There is a very interesting blog, The Mighty, that focuses on serious issues like mental illness, rare illnesses, autism, etc. One article, “When My Nursing Professor Told Me My Self-Harm Scars Were ‘Inappropriate‘” by Kathleen O’Brien, describes an incident that happened to her in nursing school. To summarize, a nursing professor noticed the 19-year-old student’s self-harm scars in class one day, called a meeting with the student later, and told the student that the scars are inappropriate and should be covered in front of patients.

You know, I think if I were teaching and saw that a student was cutting, my first concern would be to check on the student’s mental well-being. This so-called teacher didn’t even ask the student about her well-being. Not once. Instead, she told the student to hide the scars as if they were somehow shameful.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how that would make the student feel. But just in case you’re wondering, this is what she said about it.

“I was shocked, hurt, sad and confused. I left her office in tears.”

To add insult to injury, when the student asked a friend what she thought, the friend supported the professor.

“I wouldn’t trust you to be my nurse. I would walk out of the office if I saw your scars. You are not mentally competent enough to be a nurse.”

What a thing to say to a friend who struggles with depression and several anxiety disorders. Even if that’s what you believe, saying something like that so bluntly and ruthlessly is pretty cold.

I’m still struggling to process this story. I know I don’t think like a lot of people. But how would self-harm in any way make her unqualified to be a nurse? It’s not like she’s going to hurt her patient (unless the patient is herself). Cutting is an unhealthy way that people deal with interior pain or stress. Overcoming that shows that someone has learned to deal with their problems in healthier ways. I would think that both the strength and the healthier habits could be useful as a nurse.

And sometimes patients feel safer or more comfortable if they feel their caretakers really understand what they’re going through. Saying it would make patients doubt her competency is like saying that people’s skin color or sex would make patients doubt the nurses’ abilities. It’s true because people have prejudices against both, but it’s not a concern that should be catered to.

And it’s not like they aren’t going to have nurses who suffer from depression or anxiety. Or do you now have to pass a psych eval to get hired as a nurse?

On the other hand, I automatically question stories told from only 1 perspective. Is the professor reacting from experience? Has she seen patients become disturbed after seeing a nurse’s scars? And what about the friend? Is she thinking of more than the scars? Is there something in the student’s behavior that makes her seem like an unreliable caretaker? I don’t know. The student probably doesn’t know.

And having those perspectives be true doesn’t make hers false.

Because even if those other perspectives are true, they didn’t show any empathy, forethought, or even simple kindness. As far as the friend is concerned, I know that many people who don’t have anxiety or depression have trouble understanding it or knowing how to support people who have it. That isn’t helping me stifle the gut reaction that she’s not much of a friend. There’s honesty, and then there’s cruelty. At the very least, she owes her friend an apology for her delivery.

And teachers who have that little concern for their students’ health make me angry. For her to completely ignore the topic of whether the student is coping and getting treatment is extremely cold and irresponsible, especially when the teacher’s actions are likely to make any problems worse. And especially for a nurse who knows what the scars are and should be aware that that would probably be the result.

IMHO, that teacher is probably very lucky that the student didn’t complain to someone. It’s pretty hard for a university to publicly endorse professors insulting students’ self-harm scars. And if the school would have supported the professor’s actions, if that’s a common attitude in the medical field, that student has a long road ahead of her.

I think that’s what I’m circling around the most. She talked to 2 people and got the same response. So is it a common attitude, or was that an anomally? Would the school support the professor and say the scars are inappropriate? And would patients really be afraid to have a nurse with self-harm scars?


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