Imagine 4,500 people together in one place. Forty-five hundred people; quite a crowd. Picture all their faces. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), that’s approximately the number of U.S. teens who die from suicide every year.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, and a Yale University study argues that victims of bullying are (on average) about five times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims.
This is a problem – no, a crisis – that every one of us needs to feel responsibility for solving.
Some counts claim nearly 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying. Statistics by ABC News reveal that 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of harassment or bullying.
This isn’t something any of us can ignore. Think of that crowd of 4,500 kids in this context: Every one of them wants to end his or her life. Just one life lost, especially because of victimization by a bully, is devastating to that teen’s friends, family, school community and all of society.
If you Google “teen suicide as a result of bullying,” the results are sobering.
We read the story of Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year-old Florida girl who committed suicide in September after being relentlessly tormented by a bully. She lived in Florida; we didn’t know her, yet her needless tragedy is heart-wrenching and frustrating. What are we doing in our world – in our families – that conditions teens to see or feel nothing wrong in pushing another person desperately beyond hope?
New York State created legislation in 2012 to address bullying, harassment and discrimination in schools. The Dignity For All Students Act requires schools to be prepared to handle “incidents” in their buildings, on school grounds and at school-sponsored events anywhere they occur.
“The intent of the law is to motivate schools to create a culture of respect and tolerance in their sphere of influence,” health and safety consultant Isabel Burk said. Burk is a nationally known expert on safety policies, drug abuse prevention and health education issues. She facilitates trainings for Dignity Act Coordinators – school administrators, counselors, social workers and teachers who are appointed and trained in methods to respond to human relations in the areas protected by the law: race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practices, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or sex.
The Dignity Act defines harassment or bullying as any action that creates a hostile environment and has the effect of “unreasonably and substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance, opportunities or benefits, or mental, emotional or physical wellbeing.”
The newest amendments to the law add emphasis on cyberbullying and broaden the arm of protection for students harassed through social media. Because of the reach of electronic communication, even activity occurring off school property may create a substantial disruption in school, allowing school leaders and Dignity Act coordinators to respond to those incidents.
Most people have an idea in their minds of what bullying looks like. The Dignity Act defines bullying as “any harassment or conduct (verbal or nonverbal) that is unwanted, aggressive, repeated (or has the potential to be repeated over time) and involves a real or perceived imbalance of power.”
Notice that an action doesn’t have to be physical to rise to that legal definition. And, understand that because the law specifically defines harassment, bullying and other acts of discrimination and aggression, it isn’t always necessary for a student to complain or even feel bullied by certain behaviors. School staff is responsible for upholding the letter of the law and doing what they can to create a safe school climate.
Why don’t kids ask for help?
According to the website, StopBullying.gov, statistics from the 2008-09 School Crime Supplement show that adults were notified in only one out of three bullying cases. Why don’t more kids speak up?
- Bullying can make a child feel helpless. Kids may want to handle it on their own to feel in control again. They may fear being seen as weak or a tattletale.
- Kids may fear backlash from the kid who bullied them.
- Bullying can be a humiliating experience. Kids may not want adults to know what is being said about them, whether true or false. They may also fear that adults will judge them or punish them for being weak.
- Kids who are bullied may already feel socially isolated. They may feel like no one cares or could understand.
- Kids may fear being rejected by their peers. Friends can help protect kids from bullying, and kids can fear losing this support.
Take note of the fear, isolation and hopelessness illustrated above. As parents or friends of a student who may be a victim of bullying, the first and best thing you can do is reach out. Open communication helps that person know they are not alone and lets them see there is a safe place to speak up about bullying.
Teens, especially because they are in school, need to be encouraged to speak up right away if they see an incident of bullying or harassment. Reporting to a teacher or other responsible adult immediately can help keep people safe. In addition, the school belongs to them too, and stepping forward to speak up lets others know that bullying, harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated in their space.
Here are some helpful signs for parents to look for that may indicate their teen-ager might be a bullying victim:
- Coming home from school with damaged, ripped, or missing clothes, books or other possessions
- Having cuts and bruises that are not explained
- Isolating from friends and family members
- Seeming afraid of going to school, whether it be walking to and from school, riding the school bus, or taking part in school activities with other teenagers
- Lacking interest in schoolwork or having failing grades
- Complaining often of headaches, stomachaches, or other physical problems
- Having trouble sleeping or suffering from bad dreams
- Lack of appetite
Warning signs of suicide
The causes of suicide are complex, and bullying may be only one contributing factor. If your child appears to display any of the following personality characteristics, it may indicate a deeper problem that may lead to suicidal thoughts:
- Showing signs of depression like ongoing sadness, withdrawal from others or losing interest in favorite activities
- Talking about or showing an interest in death or dying
- Engaging in dangerous or harmful activities, including reckless behavior, substance abuse or self-injury
- Giving away their favorite possessions and saying goodbye to people
- Making comments that things would be better without them
Source: Teen Bullying and Suicide; what you should know, New York State Senator Catherine M. Young, 57th Senate District
If you are concerned about your teen or a friend, get help right away. If you have nowhere to turn for help, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
My Broken Palace is a non-profit organization of passionate people who want to help others in their time of brokenness. The organization’s shared desire is that no one should ever have to deal with the crushing weight of loneliness, depression, anxiety, stress, abuse, addictions or thoughts of suicide alone. “No one lonely, alone.” Whether you are the one in need or someone who desires to encourage others in theirs, My Broken Palace embraces your participation.
Help stop teen suicide from HealthyChildren.org.
Heyugly.org (Unique Gifted Loveable You): – Empowering Youth to be part of the solution to bullying
Postvention: If the worst happens, what can be done?