Kids say they commit suicide because of bullying. Why do their schools deny it?
[This is an article originally published in Psychology Today on March 3, 2014]
Author’s Transparency Declaration: I declare that I am part of the anti-bullying industry that I am criticizing. I have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.
I recently gave a presentation in a school where two weeks earlier a 15-year-old girl who had been cyberbullied committed suicide. Every one of these suicides breaks my heart because I know how easily they could have been prevented had the kids been taught properly how to handle being bullied.
What struck me, though, was that staff members seemed more concerned with informing me that bullying was not to blame for the suicide than with expressing their grief over the girl’s tragic death. I am in no way criticizing them for their reaction. As I will be explaining, I believe it is very understandable. Of course they were terribly saddened and disturbed over the death, but why did they feel the need to communicate to me that bullying was not the cause?
That school is not alone. I have seen this over and over again in the news. Whenever a bullied child commits suicide, the school administration insists that it wasn’t the result of bullying but of the child’s unrelated underlying psychological problems. Even the official government website on bullying, stopbullying.gov, which provides the teachings of our leading bullying experts, informs us: “Although kids who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause. Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history.” (If so, what then is stopbullying.gov’s motive in paying for an expensive billboardadvertising unambiguously that bullying causes suicide?)
I find this interesting because it is “bullycide” that has given the anti-bullying movement much of its power. (Bullycide, by the way, is a misnomer. It is intended to mean when a bullied kid commits suicide. Linguistically, though, it means, “killing a bully.”) Anti-bullying organizations take advantage of these tragic acts to fight for tough anti-bullying laws and to get funding for their anti-bullying activities. Many state anti-bullying laws are named after kids who committed suicide. Bully Police, the number one organization in our country that lobbies state legislatures to pass tough anti-bullying laws, was founded by the mother of a child who committed bullycide.
I just finished reading a beautiful novel, The Time Keeper, by best-selling author Mitch Albom. One of the characters, a teenage girl, attempts suicide because of a cyberbullying attack. Though the story is fictional, the author understands people. His presentation of her thought processes makes it perfectly clear how a girl in such a situation would feel so desperate that she could see suicide as the only way out.
If you read the writings of kids who committed bullycide, or if you are a mental health professional that works with bullied kids who contemplate suicide, it is probably obvious to you that their fatal despair is because of bullying.
I recently watched a powerful episode of NOVA, the terrific Public Broadcasting science show, titled Mind of a Rampage Killer. It informs us that most people who commit suicide do not suffer from depression. They do it because they find themselves in a desperate situation and they see no way out.
There is a simple way to determine if a person committed suicide because they were bullied. Just ask, if the person hadn’t been bullied, would they still be alive? If the answer is yes, then bullying is the reason they did it. Of course you can say, “But they also had home problems, and traumatic events happened in their lives!” Well, just about everyone has home problems, and we have all had traumatic experiences. But when people commit suicide, it is usually because of a current painful situation they don’t know how to handle. Many people commit suicide when the stock market crashes. If they hadn’t lost their money, they would still be alive.
If you are a mental health professional and you teach a client who is contemplating suicide how to solve the problem that is tormenting them, their desire to commit suicide disappears. On the other hand, if you spend your sessions talking about their childhood but don’t teach them how to solve their current problem, they may still be in danger of suicide. Their current desperate situation is obviously the reason they are contemplating ending their lives.
So why do schools and anti-bullying experts tell us that the bullying was not the cause of the suicide when the victims themselves insist that it is?
I propose that the reason is self-protection. The psychological field of bullying tells us that children have a basic right to attend school without being bullied, and therefore it is the school’s responsibility to make it stop. This responsibility has been mandated by law. Thus the first people to be sued in bullying related lawsuits are the school officials.
The school officials don’t want to lose these lawsuits—and rightfully so. Who wants to be blamed for someone else’s suicide? So their first line of defense is to argue that the child had other problems that were the real cause of the suicide. And that’s why the news articles about these tragic events focus more on the school officials’ attempts to avoid responsibility than on expressions of sadness over the loss of the child’s life.
But why would the very same psychological bullying experts who teach us how terribly destructive bullying is then go ahead and tell us that the suicides are not because of bullying? I believe that this, too, is because of self-protection. These experts believe that they know the solution to bullying, which is to get society to refuse to tolerate it, to have everyone stand up against bullying, and to fight for tough anti-bullying laws. Yet despite these laws, and despite the omnipresence of anti-bullying lessons in schools, bullying continues unabated, and children continue to commit suicide because they cannot tolerate being bullied. If the suicides are because of bullying, it means that the worldwide war against bullying that the experts have instigated is failing. However, instead of considering the possibility that there might be something wrong with their approach to the problem, it is more convenient to claim that the suicide was not due to bullying.
A CNN report from several months ago reported about a bullying-related suicide. Brad Lewis is the father of Jordan, a bullied teenage boy who killed himself. Mr. Lewis suggested that an anti-bullying presentation in school the day prior may even have unwittingly encouraged his son to end his life.
What was the response of the school administration? “Carterville Schools Superintendent Robert Prusator acknowledged that Jordan Lewis participated in a multimedia presentation about alcohol and drug abuse and bullying, but he said no reports had been made to the school’s staff or administrators about Jordan being bullied.” He means that the school can’t be blamed for the suicide because it wasn’t informed about the bullying. Rather than expressing condolences to the grieving father, the superintendent is defending the district. (Perhaps he did express condolences, but that wasn’t in the news report.) This is a byproduct of the anti-bullying laws for which we have so eagerly fought.
The article says that “Brad Lewis is looking for answers,” and, “I want to find out who those kids were who bullied my son and forced him into taking his life…The only way for it to stop is to let people know what is going on so that the school can get more involved and that no other lives has to be taken.”
The assumption is that bullies forced Jordan to kill himself, and that the school could have prevented it had they known about the bullying. But no one forced Jordan to take his life. He did it by himself because he didn’t know how to handle the bullying, and the school’s typical anti-bullying lessons didn’t provide him with the necessary knowledge. It only reinforced his despair.
Mr. Lewis also repeated the popular idea that the school needs to do more to stop bullying, apparently forgetting that the school did do something to try to stop the bullying: it had just conducted the typical anti-bullying intervention that he claims inspired his son to commit suicide!
How, then, can these heart wrenching suicides be prevented?
Simple. When Mr. Lewis says, “The only way for it to stop is to let people know what is going on so that the school can get more involved,” he is wrong. That is not the only way. In fact, many suicides happen after the school gets more involved, because its interventions often escalate hostilities and cause the victim to become known as a snitch. The best way to stop the bullying is by teaching kids not to get upset by it. Just because people are being mean to you, it doesn’t mean you have to get upset. As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And if you can’t believe that kids can easily learn to stop being bullied, please read this PT post.
Dear reader, please, don’t let kids take their lives because they are being bullied. If you know a kid who is suicidal because of bullying and you don’t know how to help them, please refer them to me. If their parents can’t afford my counseling fee, I will treat them for free. Or, please, at least refer them to my website. It has free material that can help them.