Questions About Bullying And Suicide

Dec. 14, 2012
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Suicide is a gut-wrenchingly terrible thing, for all involved, and especially in the context of teens. Families are left destroyed and with unanswered questions, and a young life that hadn’t yet reached its potential is lost. I have so many questions about the relationship between bullying and suicide, and also about our societal response to it and whether there are ways to improve it.

In addition to the fact that bullying is on the rise, part of me wonders whether teens these days are also just more willing to harm themselves. As the “Bullied teen commits suicide” story becomes more prevalent in the media, where the discussion often centers on sympathy and vindication of the departed coupled with unfettered blame placed on the bullies, could this, to an adolescent mind, glorify taking your own life? Should we temper or alter our public discourse on the matter, and would doing so perhaps play a small part in combating the problem?

Engaging in bullying is wrong, and we all know that. Blaming bullies for their actions is warranted, but to what extent? Should we really be placing the sole blame on them for a teen committing suicide? How can we know whether the bullying is the only reason for a teen committing suicide? What of the theory that depression and/or mental illness contribute equally, if not more, to a teen’s decision to take his or her own life? How do we reconcile an issue that admittedly has many facets, and are we falling short of a better solution by failing to expand the discussion beyond “Bullies are bad and they are to blame”?

Obviously severe bullying can be a contributing factor to a teen’s decision to commit suicide; I just don’t believe that’s where the dialog should end. Bullying is never okay, we all agree with that. But it’s also unwise to completely ignore the other part of the discussion, which is how do we teach teens to develop their self-worth, and how do we teach them to retain those positive thoughts in the face of bullying? Or how do we facilitate proper treatment for mental illness that may play a part in their self-destructive feelings? And, if all else fails, how do we teach them to improve a bullying situation once it begins?

Understanding that suicide is a complicated issue and often relates back to deeper-seated problems, I think more questions need asking if we are truly going to get to the bottom of and ultimately solve the issue, which is what everyone wants. I’m all for admonishing bullies for their actions, but making martyrs out of teens who commit suicide sells the discussion short and misses a key point: the importance of encouraging our youth to develop and maintain self-worth, even in the face of adversity, and teaching at-risk teens to be able to identify situations that place them at greater risk for bullying. I anticipate I’ll be called a “victim blamer” by some for even asking about the other side of the problem, but shouldn’t part of our dialogue be “Bullying is awful and shouldn’t happen, but here are ways you can lessen your risk of being affected by it.” Shouldn’t prevention always be a part of the dialogue in problems like these?

In response to sentiments similar to the ones in this article, I’ve seen people equate asking these questions to “blaming a rape victim for getting raped” or “teaching a rape victim not to get raped.” However, that analogy breaks down when you realize that the discussion is really about prevention, not blame. We do teach women how to lessen their risk of sexual assault. We teach them self-defense, to watch their drink closely at a bar, to avoid getting into unfamiliar situations with strange men, to stay out of known bad parts of town. This is because we inherently understand that there is no way to control what others are going to do, so instead we advocate for controlling what you can to lessen your risk. Should we not also teach teens how to lessen their risk of suicide due to bullying? Clearly, we would not be able to teach a teen how to prevent bullying from happening all together. But there are things teens can do to foster their own self-esteem, or to remove themselves from situations they know to be harmful to their emotional and mental well-being. Advocating for having this dialogue about prevention is not victim-blaming; it’s victim empowering.

On the more practical side, encouraging teens to be more selective and careful about whom they engage in social media relationships with would be a start. Explaining that sites like Ask.FM and Tumblr can often be used to facilitate bullying, so be careful who you engage with on those sites, would also be helpful. Explaining to teens that they should stay off these sites if they believe they will be bullied or have been bullied on them in the past, or if they feel they’d be particularly sensitive to negative comments on these sites, would also go a long way toward ensuring at-risk teens are not placing themselves in potentially volatile situations. The conversation so often goes “No teen deserves to get bullied, no matter what they do.” That’s absolutely true, but the fact is, it still happens, so we must ask what we can do to identify situations that increase the risk of it happening, and teach teens to do the same. Would these methods be 100% effective? Of course not; but shouldn’t we try?

On the other side of it, better social messages and campaigns that relate not to the bullies, but to the victims, would be helpful. I was so happy when the “It Gets Better” campaign for LGBT teens came out because it focused on improving the viewpoint of and giving hope to the victims instead of vilifying the bullies (however warranted), which is just as important as a means of prevention. A broader campaign with a similar message to all victims of bullying would be a welcome addition to the mission of improving life for at-risk teens. TC Mark

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