The link between bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide has generated much attention, and a new term has even been coined to describe a death by suicide when bullying has played a role. The term is “bullycide,” and I heard it frequently at a national conference I attended recently that focused heavily on bullying. This term is misleading at best and harmful at worst. Here is why:
The term “bullycide” is inaccurate because it suggests that the person engaged in bullying (the bully) died by suicide. Yet it is primarily used to describe a death by suicide of someone who was bullied. So the term, standing alone, lacks sense and accuracy as it is frequently used.
More importantly, suicide prevention experts remind us that we need to be very careful about suicide in the media in order to avoid “suicide contagion.” Suicide contagion refers to in increase in deaths by suicide in the wake of high levels of media attention and very dramatic publicity after a completed suicide. It stands to reason that bullying prevention experts who provide simplistic causal messages regarding bullying and suicide may also be contributing to a contagion factor by suggesting that suicide is a direct and common reaction to bullying – particularly if these experts speak to youth.
The term “bullycide” also suggests that an individual died by suicide solely because he or she was bullied. While the research is clear that being bullied is a risk factor for suicide, it also suggests that a suicide is rarely the result of one factor and almost always is partly due to underlying mental health issues. Of course bullying has also been correlated with depression and anxiety, which can place an individual at greater risk of self-harm. Typically many complicated factors contribute to such a death. But the message that we want to portray to our youth is that help is available when faced with bullying or depression, rather than the notion that suicide is a common or normal reaction, or that it was the only way to escape abusive behavior.
Be especially careful about the issue of bullying and suicide if you are involved in bringing performances, movies, or plays to a youth audience as part of a bullying prevention program or awareness activity. Suicide prevention experts caution us to avoid presenting or describing the method of a suicide. Such descriptions may lead to imitation by vulnerable or “suicide receptive” individuals. Yet I have witnessed performances that share the method and and/or detailed descriptions of an attempted or completed suicide.
My point is not to minimize the impact of bullying. It can be devastating and lead to health, academic, and emotional consequences. But as I noted in my previous blog post, our messages to youth need to focus on hope, strength, and resiliency. Instead of presenting a play to students that dramatizes bullying and includes a death by suicide, let’s share stories, plays, and presentations that demonstrate reaching out for help and positive bystander behavior. After all, isn’t that the behavior we wish to see in our youth?