by Rachel Gore
n recent years, a harsh stance has been taken on the impact that bullying has on teens. With the rise of the anti-bullying movement, it has become common to see claims that bullying is a major contributing factor behind teen suicide and suicide attempts. This belief has led to a national outcry to do something to improve the problem of bullying, with some insisting that bullying prevention is the key to vastly decreasing teen suicide. But is bullying really to blame?
This article will delve into the alleged link between bullying and suicide and discuss other factors that increase a teen’s risk of attempting suicide. It will also identify the warning signs associated with bullying, suicide and depression in teens; parents play a key role in suicide and bullying prevention and intervention, so it is important to be able to recognize warning signs as they emerge. By maintaining an open line of communication, parents can be powerful allies who make it that much easier for their children to navigate the stressors of their teen years.
Bullying is aggressive, intentional and unwanted behavior. To be considered bullying, aggressive behavior must include an imbalance of power, such as differences in physical strength or popularity, and be repeated multiple times in a way that controls or harms the victim. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are three main types of bullying:
- VERBAL BULLYING: involves saying or writing mean things about somebody (e.g., teasing, name-calling, sexual comments, taunting, threatening).
- SOCIAL BULLYING: involves hurting somebody’s relationships or reputation (e.g., exclusion from social activities, spreading rumors, embarrassing someone publicly, telling peers to ignore or not be friends with somebody).
- PHYSICAL BULLYING: involves hurting a person or their possessions (e.g., hitting, kicking, pushing, tripping, spitting, breaking or stealing someone’s things).
A more recently emerged form of bullying is cyberbullying, which is bullying that takes place over technology like cell phones, tablets and computers. With the world’s rising dependence on the Internet, cyberbullying is growing as an alarming and prevalent issue. The National Center for Education and Bureau of Justice’s 2017 School Crime Supplement found that approximately 15 percent of bullying victims ages 12-18 reported being bullied online or through text.
Cyberbullying can occur on social media platforms, text messages, instant messages or even emails. What is particularly concerning about cyberbullying is that
it grants bullies 24-hour access to their victims. This is not to say that teenagers should not have access to technology, but it does make it extremely important to recognize the signs that your child is being bullied. Your teen may be:
- Suddenly anxious, stressed or overwhelmed to a level you have not seen before
- Talking about hating school
- Missing school more than usual
- Complaining about excessive drama or not having friends Getting frequent headaches or stomach aches
- Losing or missing their possessions
- Experiencing a decrease in their academic performance or grades
In cases of cyberbullying, you may also find that your child is emotionally distressed or upset after using the Internet or social media. They may avoid conversations about their Internet or cell phone activities and act nervous or distraught after getting an alert on their phone.
What Makes a Teen More Likely to Bully Their Peers?
When you think about what a “bully” looks like, the image of an aggressive student stealing people’s lunch money at recess or pushing them into lockers may come to mind. After all, that’s how bullying is frequently portrayed in the media. The truth of the matter, however, is that everyone has the potential to become a bully. Despite this, many parents will react defensively or adamantly deny it if told their teen is bullying others.
Remember that being a teenager is a confusing time that comes with a high desire to be liked and accepted by peers. On top of that, nobody is perfect: not even your child. Just because a teen is engaging in bullying doesn’t make them a bad person, and just because your child may be the one doing it doesn’t make you a bad parent. Regardless, bullying is still a dangerous behavior that must be addressed and as a parent, you have the opportunity to teach your teen that it is unacceptable. Signs that your teen may be more likely to bully others include:
- An aggressive, easily frustrated demeanor
- Issues or instability within the home
- A positive view toward violence
- Established friendships with known bullies
Bullying is not perpetrated only by the “social outcasts”: while those who feel isolated or disliked by their peers may feel the need to lash out at others, these students are often the victims of bullies instead of the perpetrators. Another common type of bully is a student who is highly concerned with being popular, connected to and well-liked by other students at school and has social power among their peers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the third leading cause of death of U.S. teens and college students. Every year, more teens and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined. According to data compiled in 2017 by the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), 17.2 percent of high school students reported that they had seriously considered committing suicide in the past year, which marked a 25 percent increase from 2009. Another 7 percent of students reported attempting suicide.
The vast majority of teens that attempt suicide are living with a significant mental health disorder. Mental illness is extremely common in young people, with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) stating that one in five youth ages 13-18 is living with a diagnosable mental health condition. Ninety percent of youth and teens that die by suicide have an underlying mental illness. Common mental health disorders in adolescence and young adulthood include anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders and other mood disorders.
Teens who attempt to commit suicide often feel high levels of stress, self-doubt or pressure to succeed. Many do not actually want to die but see suicide as the only way to end their problems. Luckily, while depression and suicidal thoughts are both frightening, they are also very treatable. Just like with bullying, it is important for parents to keep an eye out for suicide warning signs. This is especially true if there is already a pre-existing family history of suicide or suicide attempts. On top of genetic predisposition, other red flags that your teen may be considering suicide include:
- Verbal hints (i.e., “I won’t be your problem for much longer”)
- Posting on social media about wanting to die Aggressive or reckless behavior
- Abrupt cheerfulness after a period of severe depression
- Changing in eating or sleeping habits Sudden weight gain or loss
- Withdrawing from friends, family and regular activities
- Complaining of physical symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or stomach aches Refusing to go to school
- Giving away important possessions
- No longer planning for the future
- Engaging in self-harm
- Seeking access to a lethal weapon
If you suspect that your teen is suicidal, it is important to openly communicate with them about your concerns and seek professional mental health treatment immediately.
Does Bullying Cause Suicide in Teens?
Bullying has long been associated with suicide attempts, but it is rarely the only or even main contributing cause behind an attempt. Making the statement “bullying causes suicide” threatens to diminish other risk factors that are more strongly associated with suicide attempts, such as pre-existing mental health issues, exposure to violence or discrimination. Other risk factors include alcohol and drug use, no support in school or at home, physical or mental disabilities and a lack of access to social support or mental health resources.
Certain demographics are at a higher risk for suicide. One 2018 JAMA Pediatrics report found that LGBTQ adolescents are more likely than other demographics their age to attempt suicide, with transgender and gender non-conforming students being at the highest risk. Among heterosexual, cisgender students, males are about three times more likely to commit suicide than females. At the same time, this gap is getting smaller; female suicide completion rates are increasing at about double the rate of males. The 2017 YRBSS report found that multi-racial students, American Indian or Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander students are the most likely to consider suicide. While these suicide rates are higher than those of Asian and White, Hispanic and Black students, the suicide rate among all races is on the rise. Overall, suicide rates in teens ages 15-19 increased by 33 percent from 2009-2016.
Bullying can have serious and long-lasting negative effects on the mental health of those involved: this includes bullies, victims and those who have both bullied others and been victims of bullying (also known as “bully-victims”). In fact, bully-victims have a greater risk of attempting suicide than teens who have been only bullies or only victims. If another risk factor, such as a mental health disorder, is present in combination with exposure to bullying, a suicide attempt becomes even more likely.
What Has Research Found?
A breadth of peer-reviewed, reputable research has examined the link between bullying and suicide in adolescents and teens. In 2011, a CDC study found that middle school students who were bully-victims were 6.6 times more likely to seriously consider suicide compared to youth with no involvement in bullying. Bullies alone were 4.1 times more likely to seriously consider suicide and victims were three times more likely to consider it. A 2013 Journal of Adolescence study that examined associations of depression, suicidal behaviors and bullying experiences in nearly 1,500 high school students found that depression mediated the association between bullying or victimization and suicide attempts. In other words, depression compounds the risk that a high school student involved in bullying will attempt suicide.
So, yes, teens involved in bullying are more likely to report being suicidal or attempting suicide than those with no involvement in bullying. While there is a correlation between suicide and bullying involvement, though, this does not equal causation. What this means is that there is not enough evidence to state that bullying directly causes suicide, even if they can be linked. Most youth involved in bullying do not engage in suicidal behavior, but other risk factors make the likelihood of a suicide attempt much higher.
Parental Intervention is Key For Teens Involved with Bullying
Parents play a critical role in preventing and responding to bullying. There are a number of productive ways you can approach the situation if you know or suspect your teen is being bullied:
- LISTEN TO YOUR CHILD’S NEEDS AND PROVIDE EMOTIONAL SUPPORT. It is easy for parents to want to immediately swoop in and handle the situation, such as by calling the school administration, but that may not be what your teen wants. Allow them to feel validated about what is happening to them and how they’re feeling, then ask what you can do to help.
- GATHER SPECIFIC INFORMATION. If you plan on reporting the bullying to the school, make sure you get information such as how long the bullying has been going on, who the bully or bullies are, whether it’s happening online or at school and what incidents have occurred.
- TAKE DOCUMENTATION OR EVIDENCE WITH YOU TO THEIR SCHOOL. Also document details of school meetings, follow-up emails and suggested resolutions.
- KNOW THE SCHOOL’S ANTI-BULLYING POLICIES. Most states have anti-bullying laws as well. Know these policies, laws and your rights before meeting with school administration.
- CONSIDER SEEKING OUT MENTAL HEALTH COUNSELING FOR YOUR TEEN. Bullying can be extremely damaging to a teen’s mental health, and a professional mental health counselor can help them process their thoughts and feelings associated with being bullied.
If you know or suspect your teen is involved bullying a peer, consider taking the following actions:
- UNDERSTAND THAT YOUR CHILD IS NOT PERFECT AND THAT THEY MAY BE PART OF THE PROBLEM. Many parents don’t see how their child could be a bully, especially if they are well-behaved and kind at home. In reality, your child may or may not act the same at school. If you get a call from a teacher or staff member about bullying, take it seriously.
- COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR TEEN ABOUT THE SITUATION. You may be able to find out why they are being socially aggressive. For example, they could be acting out due to mental health issues of their own that require professional care.
- REFLECT ON YOUR OWN ACTIONS. Children who come from aggressive or unstable households are likely to repeat bad behaviors that they experience at home. A parent’s behavior—whether it is how they talk to their children, spouse or handle their anger – is something that children directly model their behavior on. While this is not the case for every child, it is still worth reflecting upon your own communication style.
- WORK WITH THE SCHOOL TO RESOLVE THE ISSUE. Again, you may want to protect your child, but working with their school positively and productively is actually a way to do that. Make an appointment to see a school administrator and talk about the problem, ask how they handle bullying incidents and let them know that you want to be part of the solution.
If You Suspect Your Teen is Considering Suicide
Suicidal thoughts may or may not be related to bullying, but it is critically important to be able to recognize signs that your teen is depressed or suicidal. Here’s what to do if you suspect that this is the case for your child:
- Keep the line of communication open with them at all times.
- Talk with your teen regularly, showing love, support and concern about what’s going on in their life.
- Understand that things you may not think are a big deal might be all-consuming to your teen (e.g., a fight with a friend or their first breakup). Don’t minimize what they’re going through or chalk it off as a “high school problem.” For someone in high school, a “high school problem” is a real problem.
- Speak openly about your concerns. If you are concerned that your child is suicidal, talk with them about their mental health and ask if they have had suicidal thoughts. This gives you the chance to broach the topic of seeking professional help.
- If your teen is showing signs that they are depressed, make an appointment with a licensed mental health professional. Do not cancel the appointment if your teen suddenly insists that they are feeling better or acts extremely happy – this can happen shortly before someone attempts suicide.
- If you feel that the matter is urgent and that your child will attempt suicide if you don’t intervene, call 911 or take them to the hospital immediately. Suicidal behavior should always be treated as what it is: a medical emergency.
The Takeaway Message
Being involved in bullying as a victim, bully or bully-victim, is one of several risk factors that increases the risk of suicidal behavior in teens. While research has revealed a link between suicidal behavior and involvement with bullying, there is not enough evidence to conclude that bullying directly causes teen suicide. Other factors play a much more significant role in predicting suicidal behavior in teens and in combination with bullying can increase the risk of suicide. Parents play a key role in preventing and intervening in bullying and suicide attempts in their teens, so it is important to be able to recognize red flags that something serious is going on.
Teen Bullying and Suicide Resources
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-(800)-273-8255
Crisis Text Line – Text “HOME” to 741741
GLBT National Youth Talkline – 1-800-246-7743
STOMP Out Bullying HelpChat Line – https://www.stompoutbullying.org/get-help/helpchat-line