Is there a relationship between bullying and suicide?

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As I See It

BY ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO

In my long years of teaching, 15 years and counting to be exact, I observed that there is a lingering problem school administrators need to finally address with consistency aside from reduced education budget, discipline issues, large classroom sizes, classroom management, and lack of teachers: school bullying!

In fact, many stretches the issue by saying there is a relationship between bullying and suicide which administrators need to immediately address! Most of the time, when news stories report on a suicide preceded by instances of bullying, the two concepts are interlinked and buried in readers’ minds and the conclusion that follows is: bullying leads to suicide! However, this may not be entirely scientifically accurate, according to Sara Gorman, PhD, MPH and Jack M. Gorman, PhD, in their published article ‘Does Bullying Cause suicide?” which article explains the complex relationship between bullying and suicide which we laymen need to understand.

They are saying that we need to check on other circumstances that may have caused death by suicide before concluding that bullying caused suicide… and, even if bullying was the only incident that preceded suicide, it should still be examined before any conclusion is arrived at. I think that’s fair enough considering that there may have been other causes which scientifically led to suicide.

Both authors recognize the fact that bullying is “a truly horrific phenomenon that has a wide array of terrible consequences and one of these terrible consequences is an increased risk of mental health issues and even suicide…” In my more than 15 years of teaching in all levels of education, I thought this should be consistently addressed.

The two experts who wrote the article said “… there seems to be a lot of confusion about the relationship between bullying and suicide. News stories focusing on the tragic suicide of young children and teenagers often point to instances of bullying. The focus on these individual stories can easily lead us to believe that there must be a causal relationship between bullying and suicide. After all, we keep reading stories in which bullying occurs and a suicide follows”.

In trying to explain their point, the authors said, “A proper understanding of the relationship between bullying and suicide is essential. If we believe that bullying is a sole cause of suicide, then we might spend a lot of time and effort on bullying prevention strategies as suicide prevention, only to find that bullying is only one of many factors that increase suicide risk and a focus on bullying alone is not enough to avert more suicides…”

So, there is of course a relationship, the authors explained, “but it is not what we may be led to believe by much of the media coverage on the topic. Despite all of this, it is still of course the case that bullying does happen and is a risk factor for mental health issues and even suicide.”

There are several strategies schools can employ that can help stopping bullying and improving students’ mental health. Of course, there is a need for universal programs that increases school connectedness which are effective for both bullying prevention and enhancing mental health in schools. Teaching coping and life skills, including resilience and tolerance of others, can also be effective for both bullying prevention and mental health promotion. Schools should put comprehensive policies and anti-discrimination rules in place, form a committee to review and update them regularly, and ensure that these rules are being enforced uniformly.

Most importantly, I think, schools must show that they are taking every incidence (including cyberbullying outside of school) seriously and consistently in their responses. If the response is vague and inconsistent, students lose their sense of connectedness. There should be a positive school climate creating broad protective factors for students that help with both bullying and suicide prevention.

Another author and expert Romeo Vitelli, PhD said, “Certainly, bullying has become an international problem with epidemiological studies of middle and high school students in the U.S. and elsewhere suggesting that a substantial minority of children are either bullied, engaged in bullying, or both. The actual number may be harder to estimate since many bullying victims choose not to report what is happening but using peer report or anonymous self-report, 13 percent of children admit to have been victims while 17 percent admit to bullying.”

Suicide definitely is the cause for greatest concern… being the third-leading cause of death among 10 to 19 year-olds in the United States. The risk of suicide is even higher in people with psychiatric disorders. One recent study looking at more than 130,000 middle and high school students showed a definite link between suicide ideation/attempts and bullying.

A new research study published in the journal Crisis provides a comprehensive test of the bullying-suicide link. Conducted by a team of researchers at the Department of Psychiatry at Penn State’s College of Medicine, the study looked at 1,291 children with psychiatric disorders and 658 general population children. All children ranged in age from six to eighteen and diagnoses ranged from ADHD to anxiety disorder and depression. According to lead researcher Susan Dickerson Mayes, the point of the research was to use a common methodology to compare bullies, victims, and non-victims in children with psychiatric problems as well as regular and these results were fairly similar to the percentages found in other research studies looking at bullying behavior.

Schools often resorting to punishment in bullying prevention programs found out that it is less effective compared to one-on-one counseling. Research has shown that detention, suspension, time spent in the principal’s office, and parent meetings tend not to have any effect in curbing bullying, let alone protecting victims of bullying.  As for suicide awareness programs, they also depend on intensive counseling and providing emotional support to help vulnerable students learn to cope with problems.

Another source North Shore-Long Island Jewish (LIJ) health system also commented that “High school students subjected to bullying and other forms of harassment are more likely to report being seriously depressed, consider suicide and carry weapons to school,” according to findings from a trio of studies reported at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in San Diego.

Based on the CDC’s survey of high school students in the United States, Dr. Andrew Adesman, MD, senior investigator of all three studies reports that “depression and suicide are much more common in teens who have been the victim of bullying in school and/or electronically. Moreover, these risks were additive among teens who were the victim of both forms of bullying. Their study, “Relative Risks of Depression and Suicidal Tendency among Victims of School- and Electronic-Bullying with Co-Risk Factors,” presents results from the first national analysis comparing risks associated with the different forms of bullying.

Tammy Pham, the principal investigator, said it was very important to create more effective strategies to prevent bullying in all forms.” “Students need to feel safe both in and outside of school,” she said.

We need to stop bullying in school! Schools should adopt policies and measures in dealing with bullying. This should include a massive awareness program for students to know the types of bullying, how to deal with bullies, how to avoid being a victim, the consequences of bullying, reporting procedures, support structures, and ways to combat bullying.

Yes, bullying is again on the rise… just like the price of gasoline going up and down every time the issue of oil is at stake. School officials need to be responsive and be alert to avoid further suicides; students staying out from school; dropping out; and transfers due to bullying activities.

(Elpidio R. Estioko was a veteran journalist in the Philippines and an award-winning journalist here in the US. For feedbacks, comments… please email author at estiokoelpidio@gmail.com).

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