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Monday, November 12, 2012

"Does Bullying Cause Suicide?"

    Our news stations report tragedies, few triumphs, and bullying is no exception. What we call "news" today was for centuries, just anecdotes, and it was the primary way we learned about the dangers of life. Urban legends were embellishments of those stories or imagined dangers of what could happen, but probably never would. "Gossip" was the informal manner through which to spread news through communities. These types of stories only tell only a small, simple part of a larger, more complicated story. But, we usually don't have enough time to learn the whole story.

Part of the problem isn't how we deliver information
it's what information we deliver.

     There are consequences to reporting bad news with dramatic headlines, which is what the media almost always does. News stories magnify negatives and omit good sources of information that show the more complete picture. Tragedies grab our attention - headlines hold our interest and make us want to read more, but this is only so that news corporations can sell more ads. Let's not forget that news corporations directly profit from the stories of bullied teens (as well as other tragedies).

So, when you see another story about a
bullied teen committing suicide, skip it and move on to something else.
Melodramatic news stories are not the way to "raise awareness" 
of this problem or prevent it from happening.

Amanda, bullied and survived.
     Is it possible that these types of news stories can contribute to the problem of teen suicide? Presently, there is no scientific or statistical methods that can be used to determine the real impact of news stories on teen suicide. So we're left with making an educated guess. My educated guess is that suicide contagion is real and that some teens will commit suicide, in part, due to hearing and reading about stories of other teen suicides in the news.
    There are some scientific studies about suicide contagion; however, the results are "mixed," meaning that it appears that, after hearing about a suicide in the news, some people may imitate the behavior that is modeled for them, while others may be turned-off from suicide. There's no reason we should expect all teens to react in the same way when they hear news stories about suicide from bullying. Teens that feel alienated or who lack social connections may be more vulnerable to imitation and modeling from these negative news stories. Teens who hold-in their feelings may also be more vulnerable.

Teens need to have hope. In fact, one of the most significant 
risk factors for suicide is feeling hopeless

    Hearing stories of suicide from bullying probably reinforces the idea that their situation is hopeless. This hopeless comes from specific negative ideas like, "kids that are bullied kill themselves, what if I kill myself because I'm being bullied?" Adults tend not to make this kind of thinking error, but it's very common for teens to jump to conclusions based on anecdotes they hear. Some teens may think, "I don't know what to do to get them to stop [therefore] there's nothing that I can do; this will only get worse."

    Kids that are bullied often feel weak. The anxiety that is created in the initial conflict can be new to many teens and it can make them feel paralyzed or frozen; this loss of a sense-of-control over their behavior is extremely upsetting, and kids will try to avoid the abusive situation, sometimes at all costs, like avoiding the bus or avoid school altogether.

    Kids also think negative things about themselves if they are bullied, like "if someone picks on me, then I must be weak." "If I'm bullied, then that must mean that I'm a loser (or bad, or not cool, etc...), because cool kids do not get picked-on." In fact, for many kids that are "picked-on," it may not occur to them to label the perpetrator as a bully. They may even think highly of the bully and blame themselves for being bullied.

   Part of what kids need are good stories. Stories about other kids who were bullied and were able to cope with it by taking action, like:
   1) venting to friends about what happened,
   2) immediately reporting the abuse to school staff and parents,
   3) expressing their thoughts about what it means to them to be abused (bullied),
   4) in-school counseling or professional psychotherapy to address distorted thinking about having
been bullied (e.g., damage to self-esteem and self-concept; self-blame).

   Teens would sometimes rather die that be embarrassed. They have intense, but incorrect worries about seeing a counselor or therapist or even talking about being bullied because of the very negative ideas about what it means to them to have been bullied. They often cope by sweeping things under the rug. Probably in most cases, parents need to press-on against this resistance, especially in chronic or severe bullying.

    Kids need to be encouraged to report incidents of bullying immediately and schools should offer an urgent, private, structured debriefing to the teens to help them come away with a sense of hope, ensure that they are not blaming themselves, to counter negative ideas about what it means to be bullied, and to develop a plan to prevent further abuse.

   One upsetting piece of information about teen suicide
is teens often tell a peer about their suicidal thoughts or plans 
but that peer does not warn any adults. 
This problem may be the same with bullying; a bullied teen may tell a peer, but that peer may keep it to themselves. Worse yet are the friends of bullied teens who try to tell school staff only to be rebuffed, "well, if your friend is being bullied, then he needs to come to the office and report it, not you!" School staff need to be proactive and reach out to teens. It's not realistic to expect teens to report bullying. Also, school districts need to provide some degree of funding for staff hours to address bullying. It can take many hours of staff time to address just one incident of bullying.

   Bullying is a complicated problem, but the ultimate concern is the kids who are being abused in school settings or neighborhoods. It's important to have an effective plan that allows kids to feel hope and control through immediate parent and peer support, as well as the modeling of assertive behaviors and receptive school staff. Bullying programs need to include these factors in order to be effective.

Mental Health 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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