Fear, anger, distress, and helplessness.
An emotional carousel of feelings often stems from the experience of being bullied. The impact of bullying on youth can be devastating, resulting in many negative outcomes including mental, social, and physical trauma.
The effects of youth bullying are not isolated to those who are bullied and those who perpetrate bullying behaviors, but reverberates in all the communities and spaces surrounding the youth, including their home and school, significantly impacting parents, friends, and others. Additionally, bullying is not limited to the youth’s in person spaces. With the increasing amounts of time youth spend online and engaging in social media, cyberbullying has distinguished itself as a primary means of bullying.
As summer turns into fall and students across the country return to the classroom, this month’s UI CDR Newsletter focuses on the documented links between bullying and suicide, and what can be done at the individual, family, and school policy levels to prevent devastating outcomes.
Adolescent suicide and bullying among adolescents are related, severe, and preventable public health problems. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24. Bullying occurs at alarmingly high rates: 19.5% of high school students reported being bullied on school property in 2019, and 15.7% of high schoolers reported experiencing cyberbullying in the prior 12 months.
Incidents in high schools across the nation have received media coverage in the past decade. In each instance, distraught parents struggled to make sense of what happened and what could have been done differently.
These devastating events are a call to action for schools and education policymakers, and they highlight the need to screen for and prevent bullying, and to support adolescents who experience it at school.
Impact of cyberbullying
Although the link between bullying and suicide risk is complex and likely transactional, bullying victimization is a documented and robust risk factor for suicidal behavior in adolescents. Nationwide survey data indicate that high schoolers with suicide risk behaviors were greater than 4 times more likely to have experienced cyberbullying than youth without suicide risk. Furthermore, the relationship between peer victimization and suicide risk holds regardless of age and sex and occurs across several continents. Yet bullying, unlike many of the identified risk factors for suicide, is both preventable and modifiable – and thus addressing bullying at the school level must be an essential component of adolescent suicide prevention strategies.
Bullying is unwanted and repeated aggressive behavior among individuals where a power imbalance exists; bullying may include threats, spreading rumors, deliberate excluding, or verbal/physical attacks. Cyberbullying is bullying that occurs via digital devices through SMS, text, apps, social media, online forums, or shared online gaming content, and includes sending, posting, or sharing hateful, harmful, or defaming content. Cyberbullying is even more persistent and pervasive than bullying – whereas bullying may stop when everyone goes home, cyberbullying can occur all day long, within the walls of one’s own home. For perhaps these reasons and more, cyberbullying has stronger associations with suicide than traditional bullying – yet is harder for adults to recognize and regulate.
“Cyberbullying has very real mental health effects, from stress to major depressive disorder. These experiences have stark impacts on mood, as well as changes in sleep, appetite, energy level, and even how jumpy someone feels. Since most youth have nearly constant access to technology, this means that they are vulnerable to cyberbullying around the clock. Therefore, the potential for unrelenting stress from cyberbullying is extreme,” says Dr. Colleen Stiles-Shields, Assistant Professor in the Institute for Juvenile Research (IJR) in the UIC Department of Psychiatry.
Finding strategies and solutions
Addressing bullying at the school level must be an essential component of adolescent suicide prevention strategies. But how do schools undertake the monumental task of changing the culture of bullying?
Because youth spend more time in school than anywhere else, prevention starts here. Schools must move beyond academics and create supportive environments that promote coping skills in youth and family and school social support.
“The most successful strategies take a multidisciplinary ‘whole school’ approach. This involves a combination of school-wide rules and policies against bullying; teacher training on identifying the warning signs for bullying or at-risk youth; a classroom curriculum to promote coping skills and social-emotional learning; conflict resolution strategies; and the availability of individual counseling”, says Dr. Sally Weinstein, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Associate Director, University of Illinois Center on Depression and Resilience.
Beyond these key changes, building a sense of connection between youth and their school community has the most potential to move the needle for bullying and suicide prevention. This connection can be built by electing student leaders to work alongside school personnel on procedures that will create a culture of connection, respect, and responsibility. Students who find their school environment to be trusting and fair have less involvement in bullying, while positive connections with school staff lower the risk of suicide among youth who are targets of cyberbullying.
Caregivers should have regular check-ins with their children about their use of online spaces and digital tools. Ask about how they feel when they are online, what they like and do not like about online spaces, and what kinds of online spaces they occupy. Caregivers should also make it clear their kids can talk to them about problems or questions about things that they encounter online without judgment.
In addition, more monitoring of students who show signs of suicide risk at school — for instance, those who are struggling socially, are absent more often or have repeated visits to the school nurse and counselor — can help identify those who need more targeted services.
These changes are not easily made. Schools must take responsibility for messaging, identify problems early and support students from the outset.
It begins with a simple message to our children: No one deserves to be bullied, and we will do everything we can to support you. These tragedies can be prevented.
Sally Weinstein, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Director of Psychosocial Training, Pediatric Mood Disorders Clinic
Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology in Psychiatry
Dr. Colleen Stiles-Shields, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Assistant Professor in the Institute for Juvenile Research (IJR)