Bullying and Suicide – A Strategy For Intervention

September 25 2017

Author

  • Sami Ryan, Training & Program Coordinator
    Sami Ryan
    Training & Program Coordinator

As I write this blog on suicide and bullying, I have to begin by stating it is difficult to write about the correlation between the two. Not because it doesn’t exist, but because we know that overemphasizing the correlation can lead to a normalizing of one as a response to the other. But before I get ahead of myself, let me start with what we do know.

In some situations, can bullying be linked to a suicide? As the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states, “Being involved in bullying in any way – as a person who bullies others, a person who is bullied, or a person who both bullies and is bullied, is one of several important risk factors that appears to increase the risk of suicide among youth1. So the short answer is yes, being involved in bullying increases the risk for suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide), as well as suicidal behavior.

Other “important risk factors” the CDC goes on to discuss include emotional distress, exposure to violence, family conflict, relationship problems, lack of connectedness to school, alcohol, tobacco, & other drug use, physical disabilities/learning differences, and lack of access to resources and support.1

Youth that are already in a vulnerable state due to any of these risk factors are highly impressionable. Time and time again we watch tragedy occur, sometimes seemingly as “copycat” behavior. Nevertheless, as I mentioned, we have to tread cautiously on how we report this correlation.

Stan Collins, a suicide prevention specialist with the California mental health group Each Mind Matters, states “What we know is that talking about suicide does not cause suicide…But when people are having thoughts of suicide, and they’re exposed to portrayals of suicide, especially glamorized and romanticized portrayals of suicide—it can potentially increase risk of an attempt”2.  So when someone is being bullied, (and thus feeling disconnected to school, family, friends, resources), and then a news article or Facebook post comes out about a student killing themselves because of being bullied, that student is susceptible to looking towards suicide or more deeply considering suicide as a solution to the problem.
If we know that bullying can lead to suicide, how do we intervene and interrupt in order to promote an alternative response, both by the target as well as by the bystanders, the roughly 85% of a student body that holds tremendous power to change the course of someone else’s life?

Primarily, I believe that through better education about mental health, we can shift our cultural understanding around mental illness, recognize its prevalence, and begin to support one another in an impactful and meaningful way. If we knew more about mental illness, if we knew how many people were suffering, if we knew how to reach out and extend a hand, a listening ear, a heart-felt acknowledgment of someone else’s pain and struggle, could we interrupt the downward spiral of a person struggling with suicidal ideation?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in 5 adults experience a mental health condition every year, and 1 in 17 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. And the hardest fact to swallow? Half of mental health conditions begin by age 14.3 If we prioritized learning about anxiety, depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia, autism, OCD, ADHD, psychosis, and other disorders, we could reduce the fear associated with the unknown. When we are not afraid, we are more likely to reach out to a stranger who looks upset, potentially changing the trajectory of their life.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to tell a story I heard during a suicide prevention training I attended many years ago. The story is about a man who had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. He said that on the day he was heading to the bridge, he took multiple buses to get there. He was visibly upset, crying and struggling to keep it together as he spent over two hours on public transit. As with many people struggling with suicidal ideation, he wanted to be out of pain but had ambivalence around completing the act of suicide. He told himself that if one person asked him if he was okay, acknowledged him and his pain, he wouldn’t jump. But no one did. Not once in two hours of traveling on buses filled with other people did someone look up, see him, and extend compassion to this man, sobbing, alone, on a bus.

I tell that story because it illustrates how much of an impact each one of us makes on the people around us. Whether we choose to act or not, each one of us holds the power to see someone else, to show concern, to ask how he/she/they are doing, to listen, and listen deeply. Here at Community Matters, we know that all people, students especially, have the opportunity in every interaction to either be a bystander, or an “Upstander.” An upstander is someone willing to stand up instead of stand by when witnessing something that is not okay. “Upstanding” might look like asking a student who is sitting alone at lunch to join them, or saying a kind hello to a student who walks alone to class, or letting their friend know that they are here if they want to talk. At Community Matters, we watch lives transform and school climates shift because students are engaged, empowered, and equipped to reach out to their fellow classmates and say “you are not alone.”

We continue to train students to be Upstanders, because it’s a solution that we know works. But Upstanders can be any age, so I turn the spotlight back to you, dear reader. When you walk away from reading this blog, what change can you make in your own life to be less of a bystander and more of an Upstander? Can you smile at a stranger, change the subject when rumors are shared, remind someone of another’s positive qualities to combat bad-mouthing, extend a listening ear to someone who needs to talk? If you began to exercise your Upstander muscles today, how would your school, home, workplace, or community at large start to shift? You never know; for someone, it might be the difference between life and death.

Sami Ryan is the Training and Program Coordinator for Community Matters. Sami works on the design and development of youth programs at Community Matters, in addition to delivering trainings directly to youth. Sami has a background in suicide intervention and crisis counseling with youth & adults, both with the National Suicide Hotline as well as working in crisis residential facilities for youth and adults. Sami is passionate about increasing understanding around suicide and mental illness, and believes that the first step in healing our suicide crisis is to “Know the Signs” and have the tough conversations.

References

  1. The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide. (2017). [pdf] Chamblee, GA: Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/bullying-suicide-translation-final-a.pdf [Accessed 22 Aug. 2017].
  2. Caiola, Sammy. “Why This Hit Netflix Show Has Sacramento Schools Worried about Suicide.” Sacramento Bee, 5 May 2017, www.sacbee.com/entertainment/living/family/article148504329.html [Accessed 22 Aug. 2017].
  3. Any Mental Illness (AMI) Among Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-mental-illness-ami-among-adults.shtml


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