By DR. DANA HARRIS
Over the past decade, the link between bullying and suicide has been raised. You have likely read several of the shocking news reports of the tragic loss of a young person’s life. The death of a young person by suicide is indeed a tragic event that leaves parents wondering how did this happen and what could have been done to prevent it?
In response to such events, national campaigns, bullying prevention programs and anti-bullying laws and policies –aimed at getting bullied children the help they need has been established. Currently, there aren’t any federal anti-bullying laws but state and local lawmakers have become more vigilant in taking steps in the right direction. This help is aimed at preventing bullying and to protect the physical, emotional and psychological welfare of our children. To date, 49 states have passed anti-bullying legislation.
Bullying behavior is prevalent and cuts across every socio-economic, racial/ethnic and cultural lines. Bullying has become an epidemic and is an unfortunate experience that many of our young people are forced to endure during their formative years. Bullying often occurs in our communities, schools and sadly-even in our homes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other violence prevention partners have devoted substantial time and energy into learning more about the relationship between bullying and suicide. The goal is to use this knowledge to save lives and prevent future bullying.
In recent years, a series of bullying-related suicides has drawn global attention to the connection between bullying and suicide. According to studies by Yale University, suicide is the third leading cause of death of youth between the ages of 12 and 18 and American high school students report that over the course of one year, 14% had seriously considered suicide, 11% made plans for how they would end their lives and 6% actually attempted to commit suicide. For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. Youth who are bullied are between two to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. According to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly 30% of students are either bullies or victims of bullying. Overall, about 25% of students K-12 have experienced harassment or bullying based on disability, sexual orientation, religion, gender and/or race. All in all, about 160,000 children stay home from school on any given day because they are afraid of intimidation or an attack from bullies.
The implications of bullying are quite chilling because 75% of school-shooting incidents have been linked to bullying and harassment. Statistics suggest that revenge (due to bullying) is the number one motivator for school shootings in the U.S. What’s even more startling is that over 64% of students who are bullied say they do not report it because they do not feel schools respond adequately.
Know the enemy.
There is no universal definition of bullying. However, it is widely agreed upon that bullying is a subcategory of aggressive behavior characterized by hostile intent, imbalance of power and repetition. Bullying is the activity of repeated and aggressive behavior intended to hurt another individual either physically, mentally or emotionally. When most people think of bullying, they envision some kind of physical intimidation but bullying can take on many forms such as emotional and psychological damage as well as physical intimidation and harassment. There are four general forms of bullying: physical, verbal, social and cyber-bullying. Most bullying behavior occurs at school, either on school grounds or on the school bus. Bullying may even occur at home between siblings or in the community.
The first and most important step to combating and preventing bullying is paying close attention to the warning signs. Many victims feel alone, isolated and humiliated. If left unaddressed, depression, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorder and even thoughts of suicide may occur. For this reason, it is important that parents and teachers realize that bullying is not a rite of passage and it will not make victims stronger but instead bullying has lasting consequences and should be dealt with swiftly and effectively.
Potential warning signs that your child is being bullied:
• Increased passivity or withdrawal
• Withdrawal, problems with eating or sleeping
• A drop in grades; sudden change in behavior or mood
• A loss of interest in activities he or she previously enjoyed
• Torn clothing, or other belongings that are often missing
• Bruises, scrapes, marks, or other unexplained injuries
• A need for extra money or supplies
• Not wanting to attend school
• Complaints of stomach aches, headaches, or saying they’re sick
• Indicators or statements they have no friends or that no one likes them.
• Depressed or anxious
Many kids are embarrassed to be bullied and may not tell their parents or another adult right away. If your child comes to you and ask for help with a bully, take it seriously. Parents play a critical role and most states are implementing laws against bullying.
What parents can do:
• First, give your child space to talk and be empathetic. Once you’ve opened the door, help your child solve the problem. Role-play situations and teach your child ways to respond. Reassure your child that you’re always there to help and reaffirm your love and acceptance.
• Pay attention to what your child watches on TV and to what entertains them. The media can play a huge role in influencing children’s behavior so parents should engage in regular conversations about electronic communications, inappropriate behavior online and repercussions of improper usage.
• Talk with the teacher, the counselor or the administrator at the school and follow up with them to ensure the situation has been resolved. Many times, kids who are being bullied don’t ask for help again.
• Remain calm in front of your child and don’t make threats or other angry statements about the bullying child or the parents.
• Teach your child how to solve problems without using violence and praise them when they do
• Encourage your child to help others who need it and to never remain silent.
• Support bully prevention programs in your child’s school.
• Children mimic behavior so be careful with regards to your own language and reactions, Model empathy.
• If an incident of bullying is beyond your comfort level, don’t hesitate to enlist the services of a professional or a colleague with more experience. Don’t give advice if you’re unsure what advice to give.
Is Your Child the Bully?
It’s hard for any parent to believe that their child is a bully, but sometimes it happens. Take it seriously! Don’t treat bullying as a passing phase. Even if you’re not worried about the long-lasting effects on your child, another child is being hurt. Talk directly to your child, his or her teacher and the counselor about why this is happening. Don’t ignore the issue – this can give the unintentional message that his bullying behavior is acceptable. Also, don’t just assume he’ll just “grow out of it.”
Warning Signs that Your Child is Bullying Others
• Lacks empathy and doesn’t sympathize with others
• Values aggression
• Likes to be in charge
• Is an arrogant winner or a sore loser
• Often fights with brothers and sisters
• Impulsive Behavior
Same of the warning signs of suicide may include:
• Showing signs of depression, like ongoing sadness, withdrawal from others, losing interest in favorite activities, trouble sleeping or eating problems.
• Showing an interest in death or dying
• Engaging in dangerous or harmful activities, including reckless behavior, substance abuse or self-injury
• Giving away favorite possessions and saying goodbye to people
• Saying or expressing that they can’t handle things anymore
• Making comments that things would be better without them
• Severe and persistent depressive mood
Ways to Help:
• Take all threats of suicide seriously. Don’t tell your child that they are wrong or that they have a lot to live for but instead get them immediate medical help
• Keep weapons and medications away from anyone who is at risk for suicide. Get these items out of the house or at least securely locked up.
• People who are thinking about suicide should talk to someone right away or go to an emergency room. They can also call a free suicide hotline such as 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
• Friends and relatives of suicide victims also need to talk as they grieve, especially if they are suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts themselves.
Bullying and suicide are tough topics to breach but it is critically important to work with counselors, psychologists, a social worker or school officials who can all expertly assess risk for suicide.
A common myth is that asking about suicide will somehow lead someone to consider it, but there’s no evidence to support this theory. Most students have a combination of risk and protective factors for bullying behavior and suicide-related behavior but there is no doubt that bullying can have detrimental effects and that prevention of bullying could improve health and mental health outcomes for our youth.
Educators and health care professionals should also consider broadening their scope and focus beyond just providing services to those who are already involved in bullying or suicide-related behaviors, and consider implementing strategies to help prevent bullying and suicide behaviors from occurring in the first place.
There is indeed a lot of concern, even panic, regarding this ongoing dilemma among our school-age youth. Much of the media coverage is focused on blame and criminal justice intervention rather than evidence-based, action-oriented prevention. Through my research, I am strongly encouraged to know that our public health researchers are continually seeking a better understanding of the relationship between bullying and suicide related behaviors in addition to the related risk and protective factors that affect our young people. We should all be optimistic that there has been an increased awareness concerning this devastating epidemic and applications to prevention. This will be crucial as we look ahead. As parents, you have a vital role to play by getting the word out and encouraging others in the community to do the same.
• 1800-273 TALK (8255) Suicidepreventionlifeline.org
• Federal Partners in Bullying Preventionwww.stopbullying.gov
• 1-800-CDC-INFO (232-4636) www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention
DR. DANA HARRIS is a retired educator and educational consultant
This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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