Sarah de Aguiar was 13 years old when she started to cut herself. She would have continued to inflict injuries on herself had she not been interrupted by her mother, Weslayne de Aguiar. After promising never to do it again, Sarah asked for help in her school. This is how Projeto Asa started, in 2014, at the Centro Educacional Gesner Teixeira, a public school in Gama city, 42 km away from downtown Brasília.
“When this is your world, you think there’s no one around you who loves you,” she said. “I wouldn’t eat any longer, I’d just be in room, with my phone constantly in my hand, talking to people in Facebook and WhatsApp groups dedicated to the topic. I believed they could help me eventually,” she pointed out.
This is how her mother caught her doing it. Sarah looked for a counselor in her school, Raquel Guimarães. The girl showed her that she was not an isolated case: Other students were cutting themselves, also inside school premises. “After my mother discovered, I didn’t do it anymore, because I had promised her,” she said.
Sarah joined the school initiative. “I decided to participate and I told Raquel [Guimarães] I was going to help. I brought along several girls I had met, and was encouraging them to stop.”
At first, Projeto Asa brought students together for group therapy in a circle. The sessions started to grow and mothers as well as guardians were later allowed to participate. The girls also had dance classes, arts and crafts, and drama.
The school counselor decided to turn to public health professionals as girls often shared blades—which increases the risk of disease transmission. The police were also contacted. Probes unveiled online groups where older girls would pass off as minors to encourage others to cut themselves and share pictures.
The initiative proved so successful that integrating practices were incorporated into the school’s pedagogical and political project in 2018. Today, in cooperation with local health authorities, the school has meditation, reiki, and self-massage classes. In 2017, the Centro Educational received the Escola de Atitude award from the Federal District’s Office of the Controller-General.
Health and learning
After the group’s first experiences, the number of chairs increased. Students who needed some sort of help—like support for dealing with bulimia—joined the meetings, along with students facing other challenges, like shy Rebeca Barbosa, who wanted to become a dancer. She was just eight years old when she began to attend the sessions.
“I wasn’t much given to talking to people. I was really shy. Now, I’m considerably more open,” Barbosa said, who also overcame issues with her own appearance. “Nowadays I see how wonderful I am—how beautiful.”
The public school is located in a region notorious for drug trafficking and violence that have an impact on students and their families’ everyday lives. “I try to show them they can change their reality and that they’re the only ones capable of doing that,” the counselor said.
Managers, teachers, students, therapists, and other people interested visited the Gesner Teixeira School today—the institution was awarded for offering integrating health practices as an institutional practice for suicide prevention.
This type of care and assistance also improved students’ performance. “The focus of school is learning. The project had an impact on learning. It included all students that had been silenced before,” said Cleison Leite, technical adviser for innovation and projects with the Regional Teaching Coordination in Gama.
Up until last year, he worked at the school and took part in the development of the political and pedagogical initiative. “Emotional aspects were also interfering with relations. Some school conflicts started being mediated. The group therapy brought social relations under the spotlight. It was not just about self-mutilation, but also about interpersonal issues,” he stated.
Guimarães pointed out that self-mutilation may ultimately lead to suicide and that depression requires proper attention. Some students were sent to public health centers, when psychiatric assistance was necessary.
“All cases were linked to depression. By what I perceived, self-mutilation came as a result of depression, and this was brought about by family neglect, and sexual abuse,” he said.
On February 27, the school opened its doors for health agents, educators, and all those willing to become familiar with the experience. Marina Rios, technical adviser for social politics with the Health Ministry, was there. “We came in to get to know it, observe, and become familiar with the initiative so we can replicate it in other contexts,” said Rios, who is a member of the National Suicide Prevention Committee.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of people coping with depression rose 18 percent from 2005 to 2015. In Brazil, depression affects 11.5 million people—5.8 percent of the population. Anxiety-related disorder assail more than 18.6 million Brazilians—9.3 percent of the population.
Depression may cause immeasurable suffering as well as work, school, and family issues, and may lead to suicide. Some 800 thousand people take their own lives every year worldwide, WHO reported. It is the second top cause of death among people aged 15 to 29.
“All young people go to school. Sometimes we have a hard time reaching them through health care services. The school has access to all cases and may notify health professionals when necessary, including in cases of violence and attempted suicide,” Marina Rios said.
Sarah proves the importance of school. “No one talked about it back then. Depression was something no one would take seriously. School was the place that opened horizons for me. People don’t usually imagine this as the role of school, but it was wonderful,” she declared.
Today, aged 17 and having finished high school, she still takes part in the project, helping spread the word and show students that other people go through what they are experiencing. She said she no longer feels as lonely as she was before.