The death of a young person by suicide is a tragic event that leaves parents wondering how it could have happened—and what could have been done to prevent it. Recently, the high-profile youth suicides of Meghan Meir, age 13, Tyler Clementi, 18, and Matt Epling, age 13, have brought the issue of bullying—from cyberbullying and harassment based on sexual preference to assault and verbal threats, respectively—into the international spotlight.
Largely in response to these tragic events, there has been a national focus on the problem of bullying—including national campaigns, bullying prevention programs, and anti-bullying laws and policies—aimed at getting bullied children the help they need before its too late.
Who's at Risk?
Both bullying and suicide are major public health concerns, with 30 percent of middle and high school students reporting either bullying others or being the targets of bullies (4). Suicide is the third leading cause of death of youth between the ages of 12 and 18, with American high school students saying that, over the course of one year, 14 percent had seriously considered suicide, 11 percent made plans for how they would end their lives, and 6 percent actually attempted to commit suicide (3).
While bullying is considered only one of many factors contributing to suicidal thoughts and tendencies, the link between the two can’t be ignored—and it’s not always the victim that suffers. Kids who are bullied are at a higher risk for having suicidal thoughts and attempts (7). Bullies are also more likely to consider or attempt to take their own lives (7), while children who bully others and are bullied are the most likely to think about and attempt suicide (6).
Research on whether bullying causes suicide, or vice versa, is still unclear. The risk factors for both bullying and suicide—including being socially withdrawn, anxiety, depression and aggression—are the same. Children who are more withdrawn, depressed, aggressive with peers, or are rejected by peers, are more likely to be bullied and are more likely to be suicidal (1).
Gender also plays a role in the link between peer-on-peer harassment and suicide. Boys are more likely to physically bully others, and they’re also more likely to take their own lives. Conversely, girls tend to engage in social bullying, or inclusion and exclusion of peers. While females are more likely to have self-harming thoughts and symptoms of depression, they're less likely than their male counterparts to actually commit suicide.
As an adult, you have the chance to step in and change how kids interact and deal with conflict. Here are some tips for preventing bullying and suicide:
- This “Rite” is Wrong. Even with national anti-bullying campaigns making headlines, adults tend to under-estimate the extent of the problem—and how far kids will go to make the tormenting stop. Saying “boys will be boys” excuses the bully’s behavior, and can inadvertently shame a victim and trivialize the experience.
- Spot the Signs Look for telltale signs that your child may be being targeted by a bully. Numerous lost belongings, frequent injuries or damage to clothes or property, primarily hanging out with younger students, avoiding the playground before, during and/or after school, tardiness, spending time alone at school, trouble with sleep and somatic complaints (such as stomachaches or headaches) may be signs that your kid is being victimized. Work with your school’s health care officials or pediatrician to find out whether your child has any other undiagnosed learning or emotional health issues.
- Get Help. Suicide is a tough topic to breach, but it is important to work with a counselor, psychologist, social worker, or other mental health professional that can assess risk for suicide —especially for youth who are socially withdrawn, anxious, depressed or aggressive. A common myth is that asking about suicide will lead someone to consider it, but there’s no evidence to support this theory. Acknowledging this disturbing reality is the first step in getting appropriate help.
- Control Your Emotions. Although it is a problem when adults underestimate the impact of bullying or avoid talking about suicide, we need to be equally careful to not overreact when kids experience problems. Many children don’t speak up about bullying because they’re concerned that adults will overreact. Instead, victims may want to handle the situations by themselves, or with some gentle guidance. If you intervene when help isn’t wanted or needed, it may take away from your child’s sense of control (2). It’s always important to start with listening, asking questions, and then giving yourself time to think about the situation, before going diving into actions and solutions with your child.
- Bring It Together. Conversations about bullying and mental health should be one and the same. School professionals, health professionals, and parents should be aware that bullying and suicide share four main risk factors: depression, aggression, anxiety and social withdrawal.
As a parent, you’re expected to be your child’s biggest advocate. By getting the facts, looking for signs and having honest heart-to-hearts, you can ensure your kid gets comprehensive assessment and treatment—and just may save lives in the process.
This article is based on the following research reports:
1. Arseneault, L., Bowes, L., & Shakoor, S. (2010). Bullying victimization in youths and mental health problems: ‘Much ado about nothing?’ Psychological Medicine, 40(5), 717–729.
2. Brock, S. E., Nickerson, A. B., Reeves, M. A., Jimerson, S. R., Lieberman, R. A., & Feinberg, T. A. (2009). School crisis prevention and intervention: The PREPaRE model. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2010). Youth risk behavior surveillance – United States, 2009. Surveil- lance summaries. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 59(SS-5).
4. Dinkes, R., Kemp, J., Baum, K., & Snyder, T. (2009). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2009 (NCES 2010–012/NCJ 228478). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
5. Kaltiala-Heino, R., Rimpelä, M., Marttunen, M., Rimpelä, A., & Rantanen, P. (1999). Bullying, depression, and suicidal ideation in Finnish adolescents: School survey. British Medical Journal, 319, 348-351.
6. Kim, Y., & Leventhal, B. (2008). Bullying and suicide: A review. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, 20 (2), 133–154.
7. Nickerson, A. B., & Slater, E. D. (2009). School and community violence and victimization as predictors of suicidal behavior for adolescents. School Psychology Review, 38, 218-232.