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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Can bullying cause suicide?

Nobody likes a bully. We all know a bully when we see one. They are the guy or girl who seems angry or irritable "all the time:" they use force to take things from others like money, friends, or esteem.

Media reports seem to characterize some suicides as though they are caused by bullying. However, bullying alone does not "cause" suicide.

Suicide is a behavior associated with mental illness,
but it is also a chain of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors 
which are best understood as occurring in people who have a certain problematic balance of risk factors and protective factors.




Publicizing suicides as though they are caused by bullying may actually promote suicide as a response to bullying. There are many studies which indicate a strong relationship between media reports of suicides and an increase in suicide rates; this is called "suicide contagion." When one criminal copies the behavior of another, they refer to them as "copy cat" crimes. All behaviors have copy cats, and it appears that suicides are no exception. Malcolm Gladwell devoted a portion of his book, The Tipping Point to a well known case study of suicide contagion in Micronesia.

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Back to risk and protective factors. Personally, I've never known anyone who hasn't at some point in their life had a passing thought that they would be "better off dead," or thought for a moment, "I should just kill myself." I've know fewer people who have actually had a plan on how to kill themselves, fewer who had the intention to kill themselves, and even fewer who have tried, or succeeded. As a therapist, I meet people everyday who have suicide thinking, however, that's expected in my role.

What moves the average person from a passive thought to a suicidal action is a very complicated process and is not reducible to one factor, like being bullied. What was going on in one person's life that prevents them from committing suicide? This is an important question for people who survive not just being bullied, but who survive through any stressful event.

One analogy I like to use when thinking about cause and effect for mental health, and suicide, is that of a tornado. Mental illness or suicide are almost always caused by many factors interacting all at once to bring about an event - just like a tornado.

You can't say that a suicide was 
caused by one factor like bullying, 
any more than you can say a tornado 
was caused by one factor, like "winds." 



Some factors do play more of a role than others; however, it's impossible to reduce the event down to one factor. Additionally, these events occur in a sequence over the course of time.

People who commit suicide have probably been contemplating suicide for quite some time. They probably have had suicide thoughts for months or even years. There are over a dozen statistically significant risk factors for suicidal behavior, and probably just as many protective factors. How these factors work together
to protect someone from suicide or to promote suicidal behavior is unknown to scientists who study it.

Sociologists have concluded that social alienation is the central problem in suicide. Other researchers have found other significant factors, such as poor stress management, internalizing feelings, low self esteem, substance abuse, a diagnosis of major depression, a diagnosis of two or more mental illnesses, having a parent who has committed suicide, impulsiveness, having a recent suicide attempt, teen pregnancy, a recent break-up (relationship), divorce, being male, being a teen (15-19), having a terminal illness, being a 70 year old white male, being arrested or charged with a crime, and many others.

Many people have risk factors for suicide, but, there is no way to determine someone's "degree of suicide risk" in terms of "low," "moderate," or "high." When considering risk and protective factors, it's next to impossible to know if someone's suicide risk is greater than that of the general population.

However, if someone has a plan and intent to commit suicide, 
then they can be considered at "imminent risk," which means that suicide is probably going to occur unless someone intervenes. 

Yet, interventions cannot guarantee safety - unfortunately - but it's all we have! (some advice for teens - someone's safety is more important than their privacy or reputation - so, if a friend says that they are going to kill themselves - tell a adult authority figure immediately. Four out of five teens who commit suicide do tell a friend beforehand but that friend does not tell an adult who can do something about it).

Bullying is probably a risk factor for depression and anxiety disorders, too. Children and teens may feel intense anxiety about having to go to school when they have to face a bully. Anxiety alone can lead to sleep problems and depression. Dealing with a bully can be depressing because it can damage the child's self esteem, their world view, their sense of confidence, and other issues.


It is clear that being bullied is a risk factor for 
suicide, and that kids who are bullied should be
given professional help immediately.

Bullies and other life stressros are always going to be in our lives, and we need to work on ways to help kids cope with this problem. We have to be careful not to put too much faith in private or public school systems to handle the problem of bullying as a risk factor for suicide. Bullying can be hard to spot and prevent in a school setting. Too many victims of bullying do not want to bring attention to themselves out of fear of retribution or embarrassment.

If your child is being bullied, you should consider seeking professional help with a licensed mental health specialist as soon as possible.

Mental Health Advice Disclaimer
The information included in this post and blog are for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional mental health treatment or medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her mental health provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a mental health or medical condition or treatment plan. Reading the information on this website does not create a therapist-patient relationship.

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