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Examining the Potential Link Between Bullying and Suicide

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Why Do Teens Consider Suicide?

It’s often believed that the root cause of suicide is depression. This certainly seems to make sense, but world-renown 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.

Relieving Stress with Coping Skills

As I talk with children and teenagers in school, I often ask them to identify coping skills by asking how they release stress.  While some students are quick to give an example, others struggle to list a single way in which they cope.  For many, social media is their escape.  Unfortunately this can fuel feelings of loneliness, exclusion, and the belief that increased likes, comments, and other forms of affirmation would solve their problem.

My recommendation is to help students create two lists of coping skills.  The first list may include activities that may require certain facilities or supplies, like throwing a football or playing an instrument.  The second list is made up of stress busters that can be done anywhere.  This may include things like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and/or stretching.  It’s important for students to establish routine where stress relief activities are built in.  In addition, it’s helpful for them to have techniques that they can use anytime and anywhere.

How to Control Your Feelings and Boost Your Happiness

Kelly Clarkson song declares “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”, but is that really true?  Psychology teaches us that it’s not what happens to you that hurts you but rather how you deal with it.  Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (invented by Dr. Albert Ellis) gives insight to how our feelings can take a dark path and lead to destruction.  When we become upset, there are always three things at play, A-B-C.

A. The Activating Event
B. Your Belief System
C. The Emotional Consequence

We think that the activating event (such as an insult) caused us to get upset (the consequence), however it is our belief system that creates the emotional consequence.  When we tell ourselves “They have no right to treat me that way.  They must respect me.  They have to play fair”, we’re making irrational demands.  These thoughts can set unrealistic expectations that are not met.  As a result, Dr. Ellis teaches, our irrational thinking about self, others, and live leads to negative feelings.

Many people will argue that it’s not possible to control one’s feelings.  The reality is that this is simply not true.  If you want to boost your happiness and help a hurting child improve their mood, study the teachings of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or anything by Dr. Albert Ellis.  You’ll find it to be incredibly helpful.

Resources for Building Emotional Resilience

If you want to stop bullying in one week, check out my free video training for parents and educators.  It will give teach you how to stop mean behavior in two simple steps.

If you work in a school, consider bringing a bullying prevention program that teaches social and emotional learning skills or youth motivational speaker that teaches resilience and coping skills to your community.  I would love to help you empower students to solve social problems and promote peace on-campus.