Want to Improve Adult Mental Health? Prevent Bullying in Childhood

I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt from the University of Ottawa present fascinating research on the effects of bullying.  Her research suggests that bullying has far more long-reaching consequences for some youth then previously thought.  The now archived webinar, “Bullying Gets under Your Skin” is a must view for anyone who cares about preventing child maltreatment in general and bullying specifically.

Of particular note is that bullying is now being recognized as a form of trauma that impacts the stress response and even alters gene expression in some individuals which leads to long term physical and mental health issues.  In the webinar Dr. Vaillancourt describes how depression is the leading cause of disability world-wide and the majority of mental health problems among adults began in childhood or adolescence.  While it is easy to assume that internalizing problems precede a child being targeted by bullying, research demonstrates that the reverse is frequently true.  The majority of youth who experience depression and anxiety related to bullying did not have internalizing problems prior to their being targeted by bullying.  While there are moderators that impact negative outcomes for youth such as a supportive home environment, it is clear that bullying is a public health issue that warrants our attention.

Psychologist Alfred Adler theorized many decades ago that children have a fundamental need to belong and when this is interrupted healthy functioning decreases.  Dr. Vaillancourt also posits in the webinar how fundamental the need to belong is and suggests as bullying interrupts this sense of belonging the consequences are far-reaching.  In summary, if we are committed to preventing depression and other mental health issues among adults we need to focus more heavily on preventing bullying among children.

Why we need to discourage use of the term “bullycide.”

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?

Can you find the Facebook report abuse link?

Parents and educators often have a difficult time finding the report abuse link on Facebook. I have had a number of calls recently from adults trying to help young teens remove embarrassing photos that other individuals have posted of them on Facebook. In the last two instances the adult needed to find the link to report abuse, but didn’t know where to locate it. This can be particularly challenging for adults who do not use Facebook regularly. So I think we need to post a quick link on our home page. This link is also included on our handout , “Tips for Reporting Offensive Content on Social Networking Sites,” under the resources section of our website.

Educators need to keep in mind that sometimes the most helpful thing they can do is provide resources to parents and students about removing abusive content.  The following is a direct link to report abuse on Facebook.  I hope you never need it!


And I encourage all adults to remind youth that social networking sites have “terms of use” that we agree to follow in order to enjoy socializing on such sites.  Discussing these terms of use with new users is an important lesson on digital citizenship.  The folks at ConnectSafely have developed a great guide for parents entitled, “A Parent’s Guide to Facebook”.  You can download a copy free from their website.

Reflections on the International Bullying Prevention Conference

The International Bullying Prevention Association’s Conference in Seattle once again provided excellent sessions and resources to address bullying in schools and online. This year’s conference had a special focus on cyber bullying with a day-long panel series on the issue as part of the pre-conference.  Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use did an excellent job organizing the series of panels that were moderated by Larry Magid and Anne Collier, both of ConnectSafely.

Cyber bullying needs to be addressed from multiple perspectives and the panels helped bring researchers, school-based practitioners, youth involvement organizers, and law enforcement together to share their best ideas and strategies for addressing this complicated and multi-faceted issue. As the conference proceeded we learned more about the overlap between traditional and cyber bullying.

Dan Olweus reported that approximately 85 percent of the students who reported being cyber bullied on his surveys report being traditionally bullied as well. While there are some unique features to cyber bullying, it increasingly appears that cyber bullying is directly related to the school-based peer group. Thus taking a “whole school” approach to addressing cyber bullying makes a great deal of sense, recognizing that conversations in the classroom and at home need to adapt to reflect the fact that youth increasingly socialize online.  It also means that youth have to be a driving force in our prevention efforts since much of this socializing occurs without adult supervision.