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Bullying and Suicide—A Two-Pronged Problem


This post was originally featured on The Soapbox on October 15, 2012.

Last Wednesday, 15 year-old Amanda Todd took her life. Before that, she posted a video (mirrored here on YouTube) telling her story via notecards. Her story is certainly tragic, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it is unique. Her story has gone viral, but it is only one of thousands of similar stories happening every day to people of all age groups. Girls being bullied into thinking they aren’t pretty enough, boys bullied into thinking they’re not masculine enough, people of all ages bullied (or worse) for their sexual orientation…the list goes on. In fact, according to Family First Aid, “in grades 6 to 10… 11 percent reported being the target of school bullies.”

My purpose here isn’t to talk about any one specific story; if you’re interested in the specifics on Amanda Todd, I encourage you to follow the links above. Rather I’d like to get into the heart of the bigger problem—bullying itself and how it drives good people to take their own lives—a problem I see as having two sides.

Bullying Victims Aren’t Getting the Support They Need

Amanda Todd’s case exemplifies the bullying victim who feels like he/she has no options. While resources do exist—here is a list of ways to get help—people in the moment may have difficulty identifying where to turn. As bullying victim Jessa Holmes noted, “you feel like nobody’s there. You feel like there is nobody to support you. You just feel alone.”

The difficulty here is that it can be hard to identify a bullying victim. Victims frequently tend to be withdrawn to begin with, so behavioral changes or signs of depression can be harder to spot. Thus, much of the onus falls on family, friends, and teachers. Look for some of the following signs (and be sure to check the full list here):

  • Fear of walking to/from school
  • Declining grades
  • Increased frequency of cuts/bruises
  • Becoming withdrawn
  • Decreased appetite
  • Attempts or threats of suicide

Because victims may not be ready to reach out until it is too late, the rest of us need to do our part to help.

Bullying Behavior Isn’t Adequately Deterred/Children Aren’t Being Taught Better

The other side of the coin is that we aren’t sufficiently preventing bullying behavior in the first place. In fact, it’s not uncommon for those defending themselves from bullying to be the ones most harshly punished. While I understand that two wrongs do not make a right, these sanctions serve only to further victims’ feelings of helplessness. I actually don’t believe that school administrators and other such authorities necessarily want to react in this way, but they see their hands tied by the potential backlash. In a lawsuit-happy world, people find themselves act less out of good will or what ought to be right, and instead are most concerned with shielding themselves from liability. This means punishing retaliation irrespective of context, just for the sake of avoiding precedent.

This is a whole problem in and of itself, but one that is unlikely to be resolved soon. Surely we cannot wait to act on issues like bullying while the legal system learns to more efficiently reject frivolous lawsuits. If we can’t directly empower victims of bullying to stand up for themselves (though, again, many support systems do exist), let’s instead focus our efforts on parents who aren’t teaching their children to know better.

Just as in medicine, it seems prevention is again the answer.

This 2010 article from Time suggests that we can teach our children to be empathetic toward others by being compassionate ourselves. Kidshealth.org suggests a more direct approach, imploring parents to talk to their children about bullying and explain to them that bullying is wrong. Either way, it looks like the best answers are sometimes the simplest. If you’re able to instill good values in children before they become bullies, it’s more likely that they’ll appropriately acclimate in social situations and treat others with respect. This isn’t to say it will be easy. Says Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy: “empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught,” meaning parents are going to have to live by the same lessons they are teaching their kids. Believe it or not, do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do isn’t very effective.

A Final Point: Hurt People Hurt People

While it’s possible some people come out of the womb ready to pick on others, many bullies are doing so as a defense mechanism. The longer we leave bullying unchecked, the more we compound the problem by possibly raising new bullies down the line. This isn’t just a question of kids who need to “toughen up a bit” or “suck it up.” Different people respond differently to abusive behavior from others. Those predisposed to depression and other such mental health challenges may find themselves more easily adversely affected, which could potentially lead to a self-destructive spiral. Be careful not to pin the negative result on the victim; the only right answer here is to prevent these situations in the first place.

And remember, while this post has primarily focused on teen bullying, this is not a problem restricted to certain age groups. Workplace bullying is a very real issue, and hate crimes are essentially bullying taken to an extreme. Children who haven’t learned that bullying isn’t ok will likely continue such behavior into their adult lives.

Let’s nip the problem in the bud in the hopes that the future might be a happier place for everyone.

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