Bullying, suicide, and society’s role
Maybe it isn’t an epidemic. Perhaps the numbers will never skyrocket beyond belief or spiral into pandemic proportions. My hope is that it will always be rare and remarkable enough to make the evening news.
But it’s still too much – far, far too much. There’s no cure, no inoculation, no quarantine procedures that will lessen the threat. It’s the second leading cause of death among our young people (after accidents) and the third leading cause of hospitalizations. And while the numbers, at about 300 deaths per year, haven’t skyrocketed beyond belief, they have grown and grown at exponential rates in the past three decades.
In the long run of things, 300 deaths a year may not matter too much. But to those 300 families, and the 3000-30,000 families for whom their child came close, it matters immeasurably. To their communities and schools and friends, those 300 young people matter.
But not enough, apparently, for us to do anything to stop it. According to a Library of Parliament report on Teen Suicide, in the 40 years from 1952 to 1992, teen suicides increased at a rate of 600 per cent - this while the national average increased 78 per cent. And they keep rising. And rising. And the media reports them and we shake our heads saying “shame, shame” but we don’t do anything. Nothing concrete, anyway.
Last year I wrote about Canada’s Child Soldiers – those who had fallen on the sword of bullying and those who were expected to defend them. Since then, media focus on bullying and youth suicide have grown. Responses have arisen. Things like the “It Gets Better” campaign for gay youth are being lauded as revolutionary.
And while I’ve nothing against the campaign, my fear is that we will look at it and say “our job is done.” I sincerely doubt that that campaign will do anything to halt teen suicide. It may prevent a few attempts which were not destined to be “successful” anyway, but I don’t think we’ll look back on our suicide statistics next year and notice a big drop.
Because it doesn’t matter to a child suffering now that it’ll be better in ten or fifteen years. And it doesn’t matter to all the straight kids who kill themselves that their homosexual friends will be accepted – maybe – as adults. All the kids who are bullied and harassed for being ‘gay” but actually aren’t – some 80 per cent or so – will just see themselves being hammered into holes in which they don’t belong.
And the fact is that it doesn’t get better. Not really. Not for those who endure traumatic bullying. Like any early life event, it can lead to downward trends in self-esteem. It does so much so that adults who were bullied in childhood are more than twice as likely as other adults to attempt suicide in their adult years, according to a recent study published in European Psychiatry.
What then are we to do? Indeed what? I don’t know. It tears me apart that I don’t have the answer to this, that none of us do. But I think the first thing we need to acknowledge is just that. We don’t have the answer. We need to find it.
And we need to understand that this is not our grandfather’s world where strength was forged through social encounters with our peers. Bullying doesn’t toughen anyone up. It doesn’t test a child’s mettle. And it’s not “boys being boys.” It’s violence, pure and simple. In fact it’s violence in it’s purest, basest, most human form. It’s the kind of violence that can spin a victim into an aggressor, an aggressor into a criminal, and some victims straight to death.
But it’s not just the victims that suffer. As much as we don’t want to see it or admit, as much as we’d like to make this black and white and punish the aggressors – the children – responsible for it, it’s not that simple. For not all victims are only victims and not all bullies are only bullies. A large proportion of them are known as bully- victims, those who are so caught up in this cycle of violence that they are at times aggressors and at other times victims. And it is this class of children that are most likely to suffer psychological from their involvement in this violence.
So while we may want to point fingers and use the force of law to stop bullying, I’m not sure that that’s going to do anything to reduce suicides as a result of bullying. Awareness programs to prevent suicide are ineffective as well, according to a New Zealand study that looked into preventative interventions for youth suicide.
But that same study found that awareness programs that were part of a larger life skills program did show some promise in reducing suicide and suicide risk factors – including antisocial behaviours and school social climate, specifically bullying. So maybe the answer is right there before us. A preventative approach to both bullying and suicide that shows promise.
And it’s a simple approach. It’s straightforward. It involves paying attention and being involved. Who knew it could be so simple? In schools where parental involvement is high; teachers are trained to provide counselling; peers are connected with each other; mental health teams are connected to the school; and the students and community at large have a role in governance of the school, children do better in all areas from school completion to not killing themselves.
We could, like our attempts at managing bullying, leave it all in the children’s hands and punish the aggressors as if they were adults. Or we could actually step up to the plate, in our homes, our schools, and our communities and commit to stop ignoring our children. We could get involved, be proactive, and maybe even acknowledge that that’s what we should have been doing all along.