In the past decade, headlines reporting the tragic stories of a young person’s suicide death linked in some way to bullying (physical, verbal, or online) have become regrettably common. There is so much pain and suffering associated with each of these events, affecting individuals, families, communities and our society as a whole and resulting in an increasing national outcry to “do something” about the problem of bullying and suicide.
For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other violence prevention partners and researchers have invested in learning more about the relationship between these two serious public health problems with the goal of using this knowledge to save lives and prevent future bullying.
As school administrators, teachers, and school staff in daily contact with young people, you are uniquely affected by these events and feel enormous pressure to help prevent them in the future. The purpose of this document is to provide concrete, action-oriented information based on the latest science to help you improve your schools’ understanding of and ability to prevent and respond to the problem of bullying and suicide-related behavior.
What We Know about Bullying
• Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Bullying can occur in-person or through technology.
• Bullying has serious and lasting negative effects on the mental health and overall well-being of youth involved in bullying in any way including: those who bully others, youth who are bullied, as well as those youth who both bully others and are bullied by others, sometimes referred to as bully-victims.
• Even youth who have observed but not participated in bullying behavior report significantly more feelings of helplessness and less sense of connectedness and support from responsible adults (parents/schools) than youth who are have not witnessed bullying behavior.
• Negative outcomes of bullying (for youth who bully others, youth who are bullied, and youth who both are bullied and bully others) may include: depression, anxiety, involvement in interpersonal violence or sexual violence, substance abuse, poor social functioning, and poor school performance, including lower grade point averages, standardized test scores, and poor attendance.
• Youth who report frequently bullying others and youth who report being frequently bullied are at increased risk for suicide-related behavior.
• Youth who report both bullying others and being bullied (bully-victims) have the highest risk for suicide-related behavior of any groups that report involvement in bullying.
What We Know about Suicide
• Suicide-related behaviors include the following:
Suicide: Death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with any intent to die.
Suicide attempt: A non-fatal self-directed potentially injurious behavior with any intent
to die as a result of the behavior. A suicide attempt may or may not result in injury.
Suicidal ideation: Thinking about, considering, or planning for suicide.
- Suicide-related behavior is complicated and rarely the result of a single source of trauma or
- People who engage in suicide-related behavior often experience overwhelming feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
- ANY involvement with bullying behavior is one stressor which may significantly contribute to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that raise the risk of suicide.
- Youth who are at increased risk for suicide-related. behavior are dealing with a complex interaction of multiple relationship (peer,family, or romantic), mental health, and school stressors.
What We Know about Bullying and Suicide Together
• We know that bullying behavior and suicide-related behavior are closely related. This means youth who report any involvement with bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related behavior than youth who do not report any involvement with bullying behavior.
• We know enough about the relationship between bullying and suicide-related behavior to make evidence-based recommendations to improve prevention efforts.
What We DON’T Know about Bullying and Suicide
• We don’t know if bullying directly causes suicide-related behavior. We know that most youth who are involved in bullying do NOT engage in suicide-related behavior. It is correct to say that involvement in bullying, along with other risk factors, increases the chance that a young person will engage in suicide-related behaviors.
The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide
Recent attention focused on the relationship between bullying and suicide is positive and helpful because it:
- Raises awareness about the serious harm that bullying does to all youth involved in bullying in any way.
- Highlights the significant risk for our most vulnerable youth (e.g. youth with disabilities, youth with learning differences, LGBTQ youth).
- Encourages conversation about the problem of bullying and suicide and promotes collaboration around prevention locally and nationally.
However, framing the discussion of the issue as bullying being a single, direct cause of suicide is not helpful and is potentially harmful because it could:
- Perpetuate the false notion that suicide is a natural response to being bullied which has the dangerous potential to normalize the response and thus create copycat behavior among youth.
- Encourage sensationalized reporting and contradicts the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide (http://reportingonsuicide.org) potentially encouraging copycat behavior that could lead to “suicide contagion.”
- Focus the response on blame and punishment which misdirects the attention from getting the needed support and treatment to those who are bullied as well as those who bully others.
- Take attention away from other important risk factors for suicidal behavior that need to be addressed (e.g. substance abuse, mental illnesses, problems coping with disease/disability, family dysfunction, etc.)
Still, a report of a young person who takes his/her own life and leaves a note pointing directly to the suffering and pain they have endured because of bullying is shocking and heartbreaking. While a young person’s death by suicide is a tragedy and both bullying and suicide-related behavior are serious public health problems, our response to such situations must reflect a balanced understanding of the issues informed by the best available research.
It is particularly important to understand the difference between circumstances being related to an event versus being direct causes or effects of the event. To explore this idea, let’s look at a similar but much simpler example:
In the case of drowning deaths among children, those who are not directly supervised by a competent adult while swimming are more likely to die by drowning than those
children who are directly supervised. While the lack of adult supervision does not directly cause a child to drown, it is a critical circumstance that can affect the outcome of the situation.
Just as with preventing deaths by drowning, for bullying and suicide prevention, the more we understand about the relationship between circumstances and outcomes the better decisions we can make about what actions to take to prevent bullying and suicide-related behavior.