Exploring the suicide connection

By Lynn Bentley
Staff writer

When journalist Neil Marr and his co-author, Tim Field, coined the word “bullycide” in their 2001 book, “Bullycide: Death at Playtime,” they brought the world’s attention to the devastating link between bullying and suicide.  Bullycide: Death at Playtime was first published in the United Kingdom but has since been published in 30 countries including the United States.

Since then, some 49 states have enacted some form of anti-bullying legislation, leading schools to review, rewrite or create anti-bullying policies in hopes of preventing bullying and the devastation of suicide sometimes brought on by bullying.  And the word bullycide has become the accepted term to describe the bullying-related suicide of a child or young adult.

The re-release of Marr’s book in February of 2011 on the 10th anniversary of its release has prompted a re-examination of this use of bullycide to describe a suicide linked to bullying.

Suicide prevention professionals call the term bullycide misleading because it implies a direct link between the bullying and the suicide when a direct cause-and-effect link is hard to establish.

In fact, statistics show that In 2009, 13.8% of U.S. high school students reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide during the 12 months preceding the survey; 6.3% of students reported that they had actually attempted suicide one or more times during the same period.  And many of those students were not bullied. Bullying is clearly not the cause of all suicidal thoughts and many teens who are bullied do not consider suicide. Some researchers worry that the term implies a closer and clearer relationship than can be proved.

“We prefer to not use the term “bullycide,” said Jill Harkavy-Freidman, Ph.D., senior director of research and prevention at the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide.  “Suicide is very complex, even within one individual. Bullying is associated with, but not causal in suicide. For someone already at risk for suicide, bullying could be a trigger.”

Those risks, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, include:  mental disorders, particularly mood disorders, anxiety disorders and certain personality disorders; alcohol and other substance use; some major physical illnesses, previous attempt at suicide or a family history of suicide.

Two of those suicide risk factors, feelings of hopelessness and isolation, are often reported by people who have been bullied. People who bully often report those same feelings.  Bullying and suicide risk also intersect in factors such as relational or social loss and a lack of social support.

Dr. Madelyn S. Gould, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City, published a study in October 2011 that confirmed that there is a strong three-way link between depression, bullying and suicide.  That study also showed that kids who are bullied and kids who bully have the same risk of suicide ideation and suicide behavior, provided that depression is also present.

“The data show that victims and their bullies are both at risk for suicide,” Harkavy-Freidman said.   It is important that both bullies and their victims be brought into the suicide prevention equation.

Marr agrees that the word bullycide is “grammatically ambiguous” but says that “bullycide” as a simple headline has been effective in “heightening awareness of the very real dangers” of bullying.

“Perhaps the greatest feedback I’ve had from the book is from bereaved parents who no longer feel alone in their grief¸ understanding that other people’s children have been bullied to death without them or so-called ‘responsible authorities’ having spotted the red flags,” said Marr.

It is precisely those red flags that suicide prevention professionals would like to educators, parents and doctors to look for.

Harkavy-Friedman stresses that parents and educators need to have a deep knowledge of the child to see the signs of distress:  changes in behavior, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, mood swings or a constant flatness, and especially, social isolation.  And if the signs are there, talk about them with the child.

“Let them know you are on their side so that they feel respected and not judged,” said Harkavy-Friedman.  “And if they can’t talk to you, encourage them to talk to somebody.”

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