Sunday, February 25, 2018

Making a Safe Place for Students Who Identify as Furries, Therians, and Otherkins

Sunday, February 25, 2018
Recently my daughter and I were having a conversation about "furries" as I was getting dressed for work (we have a lot of random conversations).  It had been several years since I had a student who actually dressed as an animal and it brought back memories of him sitting in my office crying because other students made fun of him.  In our conversation, my daughter was quick to point out that there are whole communities of people who self identify as animals, elves, vampires, dragons, and so on. As she was talking, it occurred to me that the majority of school counselors are unconsciously unaware of their existence in the school community. I shared with her that this was a great idea for a blog post and she rolled her eyes at me.  Undeterred by her negative reaction, I decided it would be helpful to write about these subcultures that are often hidden in our mainstream culture and schools.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on students who identify as "furries," "therians," or "otherkins."  This post is from my limited research and my expertise with working with students over the last two decades. I always welcome any comments or corrections.

The Animal Mystique

Since early times, human beings have had a fascination with both the animal and mythical worlds.  In fact, think of all the novels and movies about werewolves, vampires, elves, fairies that have become popular in our current culture.

The Twilight Series introduced teens to humans who could take other forms

To many, there is something fascinating about animal and mythical creatures. As a child, my mom shared with me that I wanted to be a dog. She told me one summer I actually loved playing in the dog house with our German Shepherd despite her warnings that I was going to get into trouble. Bullet was never judgmental, he was always kind, and he loved me no matter what I did to him. When my friends came around to my house, Bullet was very protective of me which frightened them (to be honest they probably should have been scared because some days I wanted to turn him out on them when we didn't get along). So, in a way, I can understand why some people would rather identify with animals as they are seen as symbols of power and safety from an unsafe world.


Now 30 years later, we have Delilah.  She is in time out for not being a good listener.
So now that we know an attraction to the animal and mystic realms is real, I want to share a little bit about these subcultures of students who truly identify as animal, elves, and fairies.  I believe in order to be a culturally informed school counselor, it is important to know the appropriate terminology of students who self identify as animals or other beings so you are prepared if they show up at your door. 

Furries, Therians, & Otherkins



According to Psychology Today, "furries" are "fans of media that features anthropomorphic animals" or, in other words, animals that talk, walk, and act like humans. Demographically, this group consists of white males with above average IQ in their teens and early 20s with an interest in computers, video games, and anime. Also, "furries" are seven times more likely to identify as transgender and five times more likely to identify as homosexual. In addition, Furscience found that many "furries" create a "fursona" they can identify with (fox, wolf, cat, etc.) and may wear very elaborate costumes and paraphernalia such as animal ears and tails. Many, who identify as "furries", feel safety in a social community that will not judge them for their unconventional beliefs. Taking it one step further is the "therians". "Therians" are a small subset of "furries" who believe they are spiritually connected to their animal and are trapped in their human body. On a different level there are "otherkins". Through the revolution of the internet in the early 1990's, a term was coined by self-identifying elf,  R’ykanadar Korra’ti, that identified individuals who thought of themselves as nonhuman. This new term was know as "otherkin." Like "therians", "otherkins" feel trapped in their human body and spiritually connect to other nonhumans like elves, dragons, vampires, and other mystical creatures.

According to Furscience,  for those who identify as "furries", "therians", or "otherkins", the research indicates that the majority of them have never shared their interests with family members, often feel socially isolated, and believe that society would mistreat them for their beliefs. In addition, many who seek counseling for depression or anxiety were driven away because of the therapist's focus on their beliefs rather than their mental health issues. Therefore, researchers suggest that membership in this culture is seen as part of maintaining their psychological well-being from an unsafe society.

Now that we have some minuscule understanding of what it means to self identify as a "furry", "therian", "otherkin", what can school counselors do to support these students?



Tips for School Counselors to Support Students Self Identifying as "Furries", "Therians", or "Otherkins"


1.  Make yourself available and visible to all students.  

As you would make yourself available to a student with an academic issue or a student who identifies as LGBTQ, making yourself known as a student advocate for all students is essential.  GLSEN offers a safe space kit that has stickers and posters that can be displayed in your office for students.  Since many "furries", "therians", and "otherkins" often identify as non-heterosexual, this may be a good way for them to know that you are open to seeing all students.

2.  Be supportive of students who share their differences.

Whether it is self-injurious behavior, coming out as LGBTQ, or identifying as a "furry" or "otherkin", being supportive of the person is paramount.  What does support look like for a student who tells you something very personal?


3. Teach others to be an ally for those who are targets of bullying.

The Anti-Defamation League has published a list of six simple steps to help students to be supportive of others who may be facing bullying behavior.


4. Don't focus on their identity, but on the problem they want to work on.

Often students refuse to come to the school counselor because they are afraid they will be judged or thought of as "crazy".  In fact, many sites where "furries" and "otherkins" visit often express the fear of being thought of as mentally ill and locked up.   As a school counselor, it is important that we make all students feel comfortable that they can talk to us and we are not going to "freak out" if they share something personal with us.  So if a student comes to you feeling anxious and expresses that they are an elf, it is important you do not focus on the "elf" disclosure.  Providing the student with strategies for anxiety will be more helpful than discussing why they believe they are a elf.  

5.  Consult with colleagues and other therapist who may have worked with students who identify as one of these sub groups.

I can't say enough about how important it is to consult with other colleagues and experts.  In fact, I regularly consult with others and make a common practice to reach out if I am not sure how to work with a particular student.

6.  If you feel uncomfortable, refer but pursue additional training and supervision.
 
The 2016 ASCA Ethical Standards indicate that school counselors should...

"Refrain from referring students based solely on the school counselor’s personal beliefs or values rooted in one’s religion, culture, ethnicity or personal worldview. School counselors maintain the highest respect for student diversity. School counselors should pursue additional training and supervision in areas where they are at risk of imposing their values on students, especially when the school counselor’s values are discriminatory in nature. School counselors do not impose their values on students and/or families when making referrals to outside resources for student and/or family support."

Before writing this article, I have to admit I was anxious about working with students who self identify as one of these sub cultures.  However, now I am reminded that they are students who deserve to be treated like anyone else which makes me feel more at ease.  I am not saying I am an expert (by no means), but educating ourselves can alleviate a lot of fear about the unknown when working with these students.  I hope this post may be helpful if you have a student who reveals that he/she self identifies as one of these groups.