Why Bullying Hysteria Ignores Suicide Facts & Risks Contagion

Posted by on October 21, 2010

Following the suicide of a suburban Cleveland teen this past weekend, a crying parent suspects bullying.  A school superintendent reports to a local TV station that the death was not related to bullying and shares a series of strategies used to address bullying.  Then the victim’s parents confirm their son’s death was indeed not bullying related.


Mental Health, Not Bullying, Must Be the Focus

Cleveland’s ABC news affiliate covered the story at Parents and Parma schools react to student’s suicide.  Unlike many other stories I have seen nationally where “bullycide” becomes the sole focus on teen suicides, the WEWS reporter (Dan Haggerty) reached out to our regional suicide experts to get input.

Pat Lyden, executive director of the Suicide Prevention Education Alliance based in a Cleveland eastern suburb, stresses the role of depression and other mental health issues as leading factors in teen and adult suicides:

“The media frenzy about bullying and suicide is distracting school administrators and parents from the facts.  Depression is the main cause of suicide, in all age groups.   Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens, yet it is our most preventable form of death.  

The nation should be up in arms about the state of our children’s mental health.  One in five teens seriously consider suicide during their high school years, 14% of teens make a suicide plan and 8% of teens attempt suicide.  In fact, half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age 14.  

Depression must be recognized and treated, yet only one in five teens with a mental disorder receive treatment.  Untreated depression leads to a downward life spiral that often includes addiction and co-occurring mental illnesses.”

Yet these facts are getting lost in emotional, media, and political hysteria following high-profile cases of reported bullying nationwide.  I continue to be amazed at how many normally balanced media outlets, along with a number of special interest advocacy groups and activists, believe they can determine and publicly claim why a teen took his/her life within hours or even days of the actual incident.  

Getting a tunnel vision focus on bullying while paying little-to-no attention to underlying teen mental health issues misses the mark.  It is like looking at the flower bud but failing to recognize the existence of its roots. 


Traditional and Social Media, Political Hype Risks Suicide Contagion

In a September 30th article, I asked if anti-bullying advocates and the media may be contributing to suicide contagion.  Contagion is where clusters of suicides occur following higher profile reporting with glamorization and other other factors.

Pat Lyden concurs there is a risk of suicide contagion and she makes recommendations on how the media could potentially help, not inadvertantly hurt, efforts to prevent suicide:

“The media would help to save lives by helping the public recognize the signs of depressive illness and the warning signs of suicide.  The media must help to eliminate stigma of mental illness by urging early treatment of depression.  

The media would help prevent suicide by promoting school prevention programs such as our ‘Recognizing Adolescent Depression and Suicide Prevention program, which equips teens to be the first line of defense in preventing suicide.  Media decision-makers need to realize that young lives are at stake and the current media frenzy is adding to the nation’s teen death toll.  Suicide contagion is a real phenomenon.  

The Suicide Prevention Education Alliance urges the media to follow guidelines from the The American Foundation for  Suicide Prevention, American Association of Suicidology, and Annenberg Public Policy Center on Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media   SPEA also encourages the promotion of balanced, comprehensive, professional, non-political, and responsible prevention programs.”

See SPEA’s site for an example of such a model program. 

Cognitive, Not Emotional, Analysis and Policies are Needed

Bullying is a serious issue warranting our attention.  But when parents, the media, special interest groups, and others narrow in on  — and sometimes exploit for their own agendas — the issue of bullying, they risk missing the underlying mental health causes of teen suicide. 

When hysteria is created by these various entities, regardless of whether it is a result of good intentions or self-serving social and political agendas, the focus quickly gets lost.

And when the focus gets lost, so do more of our children.

Ken Trump

Visit School Security Blog at:  http://www.schoolsecurityblog.com

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