Bullycide: Death by Bullying or Deeper Mental Health Issues?

Posted by on September 15, 2010

Does bullying cause suicide? You would think so if you read and hear some of the headlines, comments, and advocacy by anti-bullying law special interests following several suicides completed by youth who were reported victims of chronic bullying at school.

I certainly do not question whether these kids were bullied.  I do not question whether the bullying added significant stress to the lives of these kids and others who are chronically bullied.  And I definitely do not minimize the seriousness of the losses of these innocent kids’ lives.

But I am also not convinced that bullying onto itself is the sole cause of teens taking their own life.  Being “bullied to death” makes quite a media headline and soundbite.  But does it accurately reflect the sole cause of death implied by the use of such a phrase?

I can see where chronic bullying could be the last straw in cases where deeper mental health issues exist with an individual, driving the individual over-the-top to completion of suicide. But anti-bullying law advocates have been quick to use higher-profile teen suicide cases to further their special interest agendas, i.e., getting new anti-bullying laws.  And the media, already on the bullying bandwagon along with some legislators and anti-bullying advocates, have been quick to simplify and dramatize some higher-profile teen suicides as death by bullying.

But such characterizations fail to take a deeper look at whether other existing mental health issues existed and came into play in these incidents.  It is possible no one, aside from perhaps the students’ families, will ever know the full story due to privacy limitations to what authorities can and/or will discuss.  And there is no guarantee even the families knew the full story as mental health issues are often missed, undiagnosed, and/or untreated. This only fuels the potential for greater speculation and possible misrepresentation of the true cause(s) of these and other teen suicides.  

Published around the 10th anniversary of the Columbine High School attack, author Dave Cullen’s book, “Columbine,” put forth a strong argument that mental health/mental illness, not bullying, was the primary cause for the actions of killers Klebold and Harris.  Pennsylvania child psychologist, Dr. Peter Langman, reached similar conclusions in his book, “Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters.”

Similar suggestions have been raised in conversations about recent high-profile teen suicides attributed to school bullying. In a recent People Magazine article, “Lawyer: Mental Health – Not Bullying – Caused Phoebe Prince’s Suicide,” such claims are being made in the defense of teen(s) charged with bullying of student Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide.  The Slate.com article entitled, “What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince? The untold story of her suicide and the role of the kids who are being criminally charged for it,” also took a deeper look at the Prince’s mental health issues beyond the Massaachusetts bullying itself.

Still, some legislators, advocates, and media waste no time using these incidents to put a human face on their social and/or political agendas.  Take, for example, this story in Indiana entitled, “Teen’s suicide prompts call for tougher anti-bullying laws,” which came out days after a 15-year-old student’s suicide.

A number of complex issues and factors are involved in a teen’s suicide.  The title of a recent Psychology Today article sums it up best: The truth about bullying and suicide. Why suicide is never simple.  As the article points out, research shows that bullying itself does not cause suicide.

We need to make sure students are not bullied in school, that it is treated seriously, and that adults provide a supportive environment for preventing and intervening with bullying. But blaming bullying as the sole cause of suicide, like suicide itself, is a risky business.

Ken Trump

Visit School Security Blog at:  http://www.schoolsecurityblog.com

4 thoughts on “Bullycide: Death by Bullying or Deeper Mental Health Issues?

  1. Ellen Miller says:

    Good point Ken. The big question may well be whether there are enough mental health treatment options for kids, whether it’s affordable for families, and whether parents and teachers are paying attention to the problem. Thanks for making us think about these issues.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Thanks, Ellen.

      You nailed it! All three points are critical. Recognition and affordability/access are critical areas of concern.

      Bullying is an issue, but not the only issue, in school safety. Too many people in education, the media, and our legislatures are calling anything and everything “bullying” any more. We need to dig a little deeper on this stuff.

      Thanks for your feedback.


  2. Dave Cullen says:

    Thanks for that sober, rational analysis, Ken. (And thanks for citing my book, COLUMBINE.)

    I agree that bullying is a terrible thing to be inflicted on a kid, and we have to work very hard to reduce it. (“Eliminate” seems unrealistic. Kids are good at hiding it.)

    But when crimes are committed, they are often complex situations, and the simplest answers are not always the right ones.

    I applaud the directive to look past the headlines and dig deeper.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Thanks, Dave.

      I really appreciate your work in dispelling myths and going in-depth to the real issues. We always look for the single cause and quick, single solution.

      Bullying is a very serious issue. But it’s not the only issue in school safety. Policy and funding should not be so skewed in one direction.

      The mental health piece is so terribly under-credited in these cases. Unfortunately, the “bullying bandwagon” is out of control and moving like a runaway train. People need to visit/revisit what you uncovered to get some focus.

      Thanks for writing!


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