Bullying and suicide are two issues that have become all too common for teens living in today's culture. This year alone, 18 million young people will be bullied in America where suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens. With awareness rising, a new term was coined in 2001; "bullycide". "Bullycide" is defined as suicide attributable to the victim having been bullied, either in person or via social media.
As a bullying prevention specialist, I recently sat down to coach a teen that I'll call Melissa. Melissa shared with me her story of being bullied at school and ended by saying, "If it doesn't stop, I'll have to kill myself!" Her reference to suicide was concerning but what really caught my attention was her use of the words "have to". After all, what would cause a 13-year-old girl to think that she "had to" kill herself? She answered this question by saying, "That's just what kids do when the bullies don't stop."
As the young girl began to share "bullycide" stories from TV and YouTube, it hit me... Melissa's statement showed me that our verbal engineering of the word "bullycide" had some clear consequences.
Use of the word "bullycide" had created the idea in the minds of teens (and adults) that there was a direct link between bullying and suicide. Bullying was now believed to be a main cause of suicide, although this is untrue.
The media's frequent coverage of "bullycide" stories had caused social-norming. It appeared to teens that committing suicide as a result of being bullied was normal, or at least a common response.
Although the media often links bullying with suicide, StopBullying.gov reports that "Most youth who are bullied do not have thoughts of suicide or engage in suicidal behaviors". While bullied children are identified as being at-risk for suicide, many other contributing factors such as mental health, an unhealthy home environment, and previous trauma should be taken into consideration.
Furthermore, it's often believed that the root cause of suicide is depression. This certainly seems to make sense, but nationally-known child behavioral therapist James Lehman shares that "Only about 20% of teen suicides are caused by depression. The vast majority are actually caused by a lack of coping skills."
In talking with Melissa, Mr. Lehman's words really made sense. She described suicide as something a teen might do when they are at their wits end and out of other options. If we truly want to reduce teen suicide, we need to eliminate the term "bullycide" from our vocabulary. Most importantly though, we must equip our young people with healthy coping skills and encourage them to reach out to caring adults.