Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last several years, you are well aware of the issue of bullying in schools.
It seems there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t catch a news story, receive a flyer for training, or get a call from a school about this growing problem. We all know media is not always the best at portraying the most accurate picture of a problem and can often times even lead to a false sense of urgency. However, recently there has been talk about bullying and its connection to suicide. I’d like to explore this issue with you and provide you with some resources that might help make sense of it all.
Is bullying truly a problem or is it that kids just don’t know how to handle tough situations? It is reported that during the 2007-2008 school year, a total of 32% of the nation’s 6th-12th grade students reported being bullied (Dinkes, Kemp, and Baum, 2009). Of these students, 21% reported being bullied once or twice per month while 10% reported being bullied once or twice per week. Lastly, 7% of these kids reported being bullied every day. Some folks (those who don’t work at a school usually), would consider these numbers somewhat low. However, if you are a teacher, principal, after-school staff member, counselor, or any other person working directly with students, you know that these numbers are accurate. You also know that these numbers do not even begin to illustrate the amount of energy and resources it takes to support a student or group of students who are being impacted by bullying.
We can all agree that bullying in today’s day and age is not necessarily the same bullying you and I might have experienced in our good ol’ days.
The other growing trend with bullying is (and you probably know what I am going to say)…the Internet. Oh, the Internet. Who would have ever thought that such a tremendous advancement in technology would be the culprit of so many middle school students’ nightmares? Not to mention the headache of teachers, principals, and parents! The fancy term for this new issue is cyber-bullying, which is defined as bullying using technology. The problem with cyberbullying is that it can happen 24/7- on a student’s iPad, smartphone, computer, or whatever other gadgets they use to communicate.
This brings me to my next point- suicide and bullying.
There has been growing concern and debate over these two issues and their connection to one another. Is there a connection? The recent coverage of news stories involving youth who were bullied taking their own lives, has led many people to conclude that bullying causes suicide. Is this really true? Some research tells us that youth who are targets (victims) and perpetrators of bullying are a higher risk of suicide (Kim and Leventhal, 2008). Research also suggests that Children and youth who are involved in bullying are more likely than those who aren’t involved in bullying to be depressed, have high levels of suicidal thoughts, and have attempted suicide. Lastly, depression is a major risk factor for suicide. So, from this small bit of information, one can see how easily it is to assume that bullying and suicide are related. However, I want to stress that it is not a causal effect. Elizabeth Edgerton of Stopbullying.gov wrote in a recent blog, “Although youth who are involved in bullying are more likely to have suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide than those who are not involved in bullying, research indicates that other risk factors play a larger role in suicidal behavior (2013).
Researchers Dorothy Espelage and Melissa Holt reported interested findings in their journal titled, “Suicidal Ideation and School Bullying Experiences after Controlling for Depression and Delinquency” (2012). The authors reached the conclusion that bullying on its own accounts for a very small amount of the difference in suicide risk between children who were bullied and those children who were not. The authors underscore that it is a combination of risk factors that is the most accurate indication of whether or not a student is at higher risk for suicide.
Bottom line- both suicide and bullying are complex issues.
We should express caution before making assumptions about the connection between the two. It is absolutely critical that we continue to learn about bullying and suicide- these are two major public health issues that are impacting our youth. What I know for sure is that YOUR work and MY work with youth is more important now than ever. I recently heard John Vandenburgh (Director of the Peer Leaders Uniting Students) as a conference keynote. John made several good points with one being that there is not just one answer to stop bullying. In fact, he believes it’s more than just one magical program or curriculum. I wholeheartedly agree with him.
Think about it…what has made a difference in your life? More than likely you said a coach, friends, a special teacher, or your parents. The relationships you had (or have) in your life probably helped you make it- I know for me this is absolutely true. As a kid when I was a victim of bullying I always had a support network to help me. Friends, teachers, family- all provided me with a safety net. The problem is many youth who turn to harmful behaviors, do not have this safety net- they feel they are in it alone. THAT is part of the problem with bullying and suicide (in my humble opinion). The overwhelming feeling of NOT being part of something, NOT being worth something good, NOT being connected, NOT having a lifeline, can make a young person feel completely alone.
Programs and schools should look at ways that students are included.
How does your program promote this? How do YOU promote this? Does your staff and program provide a sense of belonging to students? Research on risk and resiliency as well as protective factors, tells us the need that students have for belonging (ehem, can you say Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?). Sounds simple because the concept is relatively simple to understand- we are human beings in need of connection, bonding, love, and support- that’s the real story. We NEED to have support systems in place that value our youth in order to ever combat bullying and suicide. The “how” to go about doing this in our schools is a bit more complex.
I’m not going to pitch a school-wide approach in this blog but rather encourage you to start with yourself and your coworkers. Examine ways that you and your staff provide a safety net for kids. Are your services open to everyone? Do your activities allow everyone to have an equal voice? Does your program offer relevant services to the students who attend? Are your activities engaging? Do you and your staff empower youth? Last, but not least, do you and your coworkers demonstrate to kids that you honestly care?
I once heard someone say that kids may not always remember our exact words but they will always remember how we made them feel. This statement has stuck with me for a long time. I hope it resonates with you and encourages you to be a lifeline for kids- all kids but especially those who have nobody else to fall back on.
By the way, I started my day with cinnamon apple oatmeal- what about you?
Author Profile: @gaby