Bullying And Suicide: What’s The Connection?
By Sarah Fader
Updated December 17, 2018
Reviewer Tiffany Howard, LPC, LCADC
Certainly, no one disputes the potentially devastating consequences of bullying. The research is clear that bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, health problems, poor school achievement, and even dropping out of school completely.
So it's not surprising that there is also a proven link between bullying and suicide. Bullying and suicide statistics show that bully-victims are 2-9 times more likely to consider suicide than are non-victims. A British study found that half of the suicides committed by young people are related to bullying.
While these statistics are troubling, they pale in comparison to the many real-life stories of suicide notes indicating bullying as the trigger. Recently, we were confronted with the heartbreaking story of Gabriel Taye, an eight-year-old boy who killed himself from bullying. Stories like these send a chill to our hearts and make us even more committed to stopping bullying.
However, this problem is far more complicated than it appears. There are many factors at play, and the relationship between bullying and suicide is not clear-cut.
For one thing, not everyone who is bullied commits suicide. So, why is it that some victims commit suicide, while others don't?
Another complex aspect of the issue is the role of bystanders and the bullies themselves. While we understandably focus our concern on the victims, the effects on other participants or witnesses are an important piece of the puzzle too.
There is also the troubling fact that certain groups are at a higher risk for bullying-related suicide. Special needs students, those with learning disabilities, and LGBT youth are more likely to commit suicide because of bullying than other groups.
With all of these factors in play, what is the best way to prevent bullying-related suicide?
A Complex Relationship
It's clear that young people who are bullied are far likelier to commit suicide than those who are not. This knowledge alone makes it imperative that teachers, counselors, parents, and friends do all they can to prevent bullying.
However, it is wrong and even potentially dangerous to credit bullying as the sole cause of any instance of suicide-related behavior.
In any case, when we lose a loved one to suicide, we struggle with finding a reason and understanding how this tragic event could have been prevented. The truth is that suicide is never the direct result of just one event. Rather, it is the accumulated result of many events and emotions which have built up over time.
It's dangerous to attribute suicide directly to bullying as a primary cause. This can make victims feel even more helpless, believing that ending their lives is the only solution. In fact, this is untrue. Many victims of bullying go on to survive and even thrive.
In fact, the biggest predictor of youth suicide is not bullying. It is the presence of a psychiatric disorder of any kind, but especially major depressive disorder or any of the Cluster B personality disorders (such as borderline personality disorder or narcissism). The risk is especially high if more than one of these disorders are co-occurring. However, not everyone who suffers from depression or a personality disorder commits suicide either.
The reality is that the causes of suicidal ideation and behavior are so many and complex that it's almost impossible to tease out just one trigger. The desire or the decision to end one's own life comes from a place of deep hopelessness. The person comes to this place through a gradual build-up of stressors, leading her to the conviction that life is not worth living.
There is no doubt that bullying can be a huge contributor to such feelings. If a person is already feeling helpless and overwhelmed, an episode of public humiliation or a cruel comment like "go kill yourself" can send him over the edge.
Bullies, Bystanders, And "Bully-Victims"
I know what you're thinking. Who cares about the bullies or the bystanders? They deserve to be punished. The only person whose feelings matter should be the victim.
But this couldn't be further from the truth.
In fact, the research shows that bullying is every bit as harmful to perpetrators and bystanders as it is to victims. They too have a statistically greater likelihood of suicidal ideation, attempts, or completion.
And the group at greatest risk for suicide? Bully-victims.
These are young people who have fallen on both sides of the bullying dynamic, as perpetrators as well as victims. And their risk for suicidal behavior is a stunning four times as much as that of those who are not involved in bullying at all. For victims, the rate is three times as much.
In the current climate of zero tolerance for bullying, we tend to dole out harsh and punitive consequences to perpetrators. But this approach may make the problem worse. Many perpetrators are also victims, thus requiring a subtler and more complex approach than simple punishment.
And what about bystanders?
Studies show that young people who witness bullying have an increased risk for mental health problems like anxiety and depression. They experience a complicated set of emotions in response to the event, including fear, guilt, and anxiety. The damage to their mental health seems logical when you consider that witnessing violent events in the home or outside of school are acknowledged to be a cause of trauma in children. So why should the school be any different?
When we talk about peer aggression in the digital age, the issue of cyberbullying always comes to the forefront of the discussion. Those of us who came of age in simpler times find it hard to fathom the pain of a bully who has access to her victim 24/7, even when the victim is in the safety of her home behind closed doors.
But according to cyberbullying suicide stats, online aggression is no more harmful than traditional bullying. While stories of cyberbullying suicide that appear in the news certainly shock and sadden us, these incidents are isolated. Cyberbullying, like traditional bullying, can cause severe harm to victims and perpetrators and can be a significant contributing factor in suicidal behavior. However, it has not been found to trigger suicidal behavior or ideation to a greater degree than traditional, face-to-face harassment.
However, this is not to downplay the dangers of cyberbullying. This form of aggression is damaging and harmful and needs to be taken seriously.
The Most Vulnerable Among Us
It is a sad fact of human nature that aggressors tend to prey upon the weak. Those who are already physically or emotionally disabled or socially marginalized are frequent targets for bullying.
Teens With Disabilities
The research shows that half of the young people with learning disabilities, speech impairments, or autism will be the victims of bullying, as compared to only 1 in 10 of teens without such disabilities.
Suicidal ideation is also more prevalent among these vulnerable teens. In one study, 13% of disabled high school youth reported a suicide attempt in the previous year, as compared to 3% of teens without disabilities.
Young people who already struggle with many of the tasks of day-to-day life face an additional obstacle in the absence of understanding or compassion from their peers. For many of these youths, poor social skills are part of their disability, opening them up even more to cruelty and ridicule. In many cases, these young people become perpetrators, putting them in the high-risk category of "bully-victims."
Teens who identify or are perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender have a well-documented risk of becoming the targets of bullying.
For these young people, the effects of bullying and harassment are dire. Only 37% of LGBT youth report being happy, as compared to 67% of non-LGBT youth. They are more than twice as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs. They report bullying as the second-most important problem in their lives. One-third of gay teens reported staying home from school because they did not feel safe there, citing the fact that they reported bullying incidents to staff who did nothing. And LGBT youth commit suicide at four times the rate of their heterosexual peers. Each instance of harassment makes the risk of self-harm 2.5 times greater.
As you can see, addressing the problem of bullying and teen suicide is by no means simple. The issue is so large and complex that a multi-pronged approach is needed. But here are some concrete steps that schools and families can take to reduce the risks.
- Avoid any inference that suicide is a natural reaction to bullying.
- But do not downplay the harmful effects of bullying.
- Provide support to perpetrators and bystanders, as well as victims.
- Focus on counseling bully-victims rather than punishing them.
- Teach young people strategies to intervene when they are witnessing a bullying incident.
- Educate young people about the effects of various disabilities, especially about social interactions.
- Provide support to LGBT teens through student groups such as Gay-Straight-Transgender
- Take immediate action when a young person reports an incident of bullying.
- Seek the help of a trained counselor if you or a loved one are involved in an incident of bullying. One of our experienced therapists at BetterHelpcan assist you in sorting out your emotions so that you don't succumb to feelings of hopelessness.
Bullying is distressing and painful. But it doesn't have to be the end of the world. Victims, perpetrators, and bystanders can navigate their way through this painful situation and come out on the other side stronger and healthier than they were before.