Does bullying cause suicide? You would think so if you read and hear some of the headlines, comments, and advocacy by anti-bullying law special interests following several suicides completed by youth who were reported victims of chronic bullying at school.
I certainly do not question whether these kids were bullied. I do not question whether the bullying added significant stress to the lives of these kids and others who are chronically bullied. And I definitely do not minimize the seriousness of the losses of these innocent kids’ lives.
But I am also not convinced that bullying onto itself is the sole cause of teens taking their own life. Being “bullied to death” makes quite a media headline and soundbite. But does it accurately reflect the sole cause of death implied by the use of such a phrase?
I can see where chronic bullying could be the last straw in cases where deeper mental health issues exist with an individual, driving the individual over-the-top to completion of suicide. But anti-bullying law advocates have been quick to use higher-profile teen suicide cases to further their special interest agendas, i.e., getting new anti-bullying laws. And the media, already on the bullying bandwagon along with some legislators and anti-bullying advocates, have been quick to simplify and dramatize some higher-profile teen suicides as death by bullying.
But such characterizations fail to take a deeper look at whether other existing mental health issues existed and came into play in these incidents. It is possible no one, aside from perhaps the students’ families, will ever know the full story due to privacy limitations to what authorities can and/or will discuss. And there is no guarantee even the families knew the full story as mental health issues are often missed, undiagnosed, and/or untreated. This only fuels the potential for greater speculation and possible misrepresentation of the true cause(s) of these and other teen suicides.
Published around the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School attack, author Dave Cullen’s book, “Columbine,” put forth a strong argument that mental health/mental illness, not bullying, was the primary cause for the actions of killers Klebold and Harris. Pennsylvania child psychologist, Dr. Peter Langman, reached similar conclusions in his book, “Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters.”
Similar suggestions have been raised in conversations about recent high-profile teen suicides attributed to school bullying. In a recent People Magazine article, “Lawyer: Mental Health – Not Bullying – Caused Phoebe Prince’s Suicide,” such claims are being made in the defense of teen(s) charged with bullying of student Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide. The Slate.com article entitled, “What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince? The untold story of her suicide and the role of the kids who are being criminally charged for it,” also took a deeper look at the Prince’s mental health issues beyond the Massaachusetts bullying itself.
Still, some legislators, advocates, and media waste no time using these incidents to put a human face on their social and/or political agendas. Take, for example, this story in Indiana entitled, “Teen’s suicide prompts call for tougher anti-bullying laws,” which came out days after a 15-year-old student’s suicide.
A number of complex issues and factors are involved in a teen’s suicide. The title of a recent Psychology Today article sums it up best: The truth about bullying and suicide. Why suicide is never simple. As the article points out, research shows that bullying itself does not cause suicide.
We need to make sure students are not bullied in school, that it is treated seriously, and that adults provide a supportive environment for preventing and intervening with bullying. But blaming bullying as the sole cause of suicide, like suicide itself, is a risky business.
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