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.

Recommended Guidelines for Bullying Prevention Assemblies – Patti Agatston, PhD

– This article was originally featured in the spring 2014 International Bullying Prevention Association Newsletter.

1. Recognize the limits of the school assembly approach in changing behavior. It may be beneficial to utilize assemblies to generate awareness and build enthusiasm for preventing bullying, however ongoing prevention efforts are necessary to bring about changes in behavior and school climate. Have a plan for follow up activities in place prior to providing an assembly activity. (See Misdirections in Bullying Prevention and Intervention at www.stopbullying.gov to learn more about using resources wisely.)
2. Preview performances and scripts to ensure that the messages are based on sound theoretical knowledge, research, and best practices in bullying prevention. Avoid performances that promote stereotypes regarding the type of youth who are bullied or engage in bullying. Also avoid messaging that implies that youth who bully always have low self-esteem, are big and tough, or that “standing up to a bully” is always the best solution. See research by Phillip Rodkin on the socially connected bully (Rodkin, 2012) to understand more about the socially connected versus the socially marginalized bully. See also information from the Youth Voice Project (Davis & Nixon, 2013) to learn more about which strategies are most helpful for youth who are targeted by bullying.
3. Put the focus on the positive behavior that we want students to demonstrate. Performances that focus on positive ally actions are more effective than scare tactics or numerous examples and inflated statistics regarding bullying. Social norming theory (Berkowitz, 2004) posits that behavior is influenced by inaccurate perceptions regarding how other members of the peer group think and act. Individuals tend to overestimate the number of their peers involved in negative behaviors. Correcting such misperceptions can lead to positive behavior change. Thus youth are more likely to engage in pro-social behavior when they understand that the majority of their peers share their desire to or are engaging in positive behavior. Use local survey data and youth leaders to help spread the message that most youth are engaging in pro-social behavior or have pro-social beliefs. When possible allow students to create the assembly, share local statistics, and have ownership of the messages and actions requested of their peers.
4. Be very cautious with messaging around bullying and suicide. Messages that imply simplistic causal relationships between bullying and suicide are misleading and potentially harmful to prevention efforts. The following was noted in the Journal of Adolescent Health’s Special Supplement on the Relationship between Youth Involvement in Bullying and Suicide: “A critical difference distinguishes an association between bullying and suicide from a causal relationship, with significant implications for prevention. Conveying that bullying alone causes suicide at best minimizes, and at worst ignores, the other factors that may contribute to death by suicide” (Hertz, Donato, & Wright, 2013 p.S-2.)
5. Be aware that student audiences may include “suicide-receptive” youth. Assemblies that focus on explicit details, methods and dramatizations of suicide rather than the importance of reaching out for help should be avoided. (NIHM, Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide)

Berkowitz, A. (2004). The Social Norms Approach: Theory, Research, and Annotated Bibliography. Retrieved from http://www.alanberkowitz.com/articles/social_norms.pdf

Davis, S., & Nixon, C. (2013). The Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment. Research Press.

Hertz, M., Donato, I., & Wright, J. (2013). Bullying and Suicide: A Public Health Approach. Journal of Adolescent Health Supplement, 53(1), S1-S3. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X1300270X

NIMH • Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide. (n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2013, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/recommendations-for-reporting-on-suicide.shtml

Misdirections in Bullying Prevention. (n.d.). Retrieved January 6, 2013, from http://www.stopbullying.gov/prevention/at-school/educate/misdirections-in-prevention.pdf
Rodkin, P. (2012). Bullying and Children’s Relationships. Education Matters, 8(2).

Are We Norming Resiliency With Our Kids?

I am excited about the theme of this year’s International Bullying Prevention Association’s Conference: Bullying and Intolerance: “From Risk to Resiliency.” This year’s conference will take place, appropriately, in the city of New Orleans.

Much media attention has been given to the problem of bullying and suicide. Yet when the media covers the sad death of a young person by suicide, they seldom mention that suicide is typically a multifaceted issue involving treatable mental health issues, and that help is available.  Members of the media can help us encourage help-seeking behavior and avoid contagion by following the NIMH guidelines for reporting on suicide.

Social norming theory posits that our messages to youth can norm positive or negative behavior. A positive social norming approach has been particularly effective in changing youth’s views that using alcohol or other drugs is a common behavior among their peers – which in turn leads to reduced alcohol and drug use among the youth population. Research is emerging that suggests that social norming strategies can have a positive effect in reducing bullying behavior among youth as well. (Craig and Perkins, 2011).

I have a particular interest in the concept of norming resiliency rather than cruel or destructive behavior with young people. While the research  indicates that there is a relationship between being bullied and experiencing thoughts of suicide, research also suggests that to prevent suicide among youth we need to norm strength-based messages and help-seeking behaviors. I hope we can get more bullying prevention advocates speaking to suicide prevention advocates so that we can all learn to spread messages of resiliency rather than despair around this important issue. There will be a thought provoking panel at the IBPA conference this year on Social Norming that I will be a part of along with Anne Collier and Larry Magid of ConnectSafely, and Mark LoMurray from the Sources of Strength Suicide Prevention Program. Sources of Strength is making a very real difference in many schools across the country by using strength-based messages and breaking down barriers to help-seeking behavior among youth. I hope you can join us in New Orleans Nov. 6-8th to learn more about Mark’s efforts and the importance of norming resiliency among our youth.