Bul­ly­ing, sui­cide, and so­ci­ety’s role

The Compass - - ORTHTE -

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.

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