Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bullying and Suicide: The Complex Connection

Written By Guest Blogger: Nicole Cochran

On October 10, 2012 Amanda Todd, 15, a Canadian teenager, killed herself after posting a YouTube video talking about her experiences with bullying, assault, and depression. Amanda begins telling us her story about how when she was in 7th grade, she would go on a webcam with her friends and a stranger eventually talked her into flashing the camera (Grenoble, 2012). “One year later, a man contacted her on Facebook, threatening to send around the picture of her topless "if [she] don't put on a show." Terrifyingly, the stranger knew everything about her: her address, school, friends, relatives, and the names of her family members. Soon, her naked photo had been forwarded "to everyone"” (Grenoble 2012). Amanda ended up switching schools because of the bullying but the stranger did not let up. Once she was at a new school, the stranger created a Facebook page where he used her uncensored picture as the profile image. The kids at her new school found out and this led to further bullying, harassment, and she was eventually assaulted and was left on the ground. Amanda turned to cutting herself. “Amanda's bullying continued despite moving to a new city. Anti-depressants and counseling did little to combat the severe depression” (Grenoble, 2012).

All too often we read media headlines about kids who die by suicide, allegedly “because they were bullied”. Far too often when we look at the reasons why people would take their lives we find bullying in their life history. But the relations between bulling and these individuals often had many additional underlying risk factors that make the relationship far from straightforward. In looking at the research that explains the characteristics that connect those who are involved in bullying to suicidal ideation, we see that bullies and victims of bullying generally have “higher levels of insecurity, anxiety, depression, loneliness, unhappiness, physical and mental symptoms, and low self-esteem” (Nansel et al., 2001). In today’s society, people are finally looking at the correlation of bullying and the connection it has to suicide. Unfortunately, it took too many publicized stories of this problem to bring the conversation to public awareness. The connection between bullying and suicidal ideation is complex and deepened by the mitigating risk factors that are a part of the lives of the bullies and the victims.

In order to understand the connection, we need to first understand bullying and suicidal ideation. Bullying, by definition, is “a specific type of aggression in which (1) the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, (2) the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and (3) there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one” (Nansel et al., 2001). Suicidal ideation, or thoughts of suicide, is just that, thoughts about suicide, but not the actual commitment or plan to die by suicide.

In looking at the risk factors that connect bullying and suicidal ideation, outside of a mental health disorder or biological factors, self harm and a prior suicide attempt are the most potent risk factors that underlie the connection. In the research reported by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center [SPRC] “during the 2007-2008 school year, 32% of the nations students ages 12-18 reported being bullied, 21% said they were bullied once or twice a month, 10% reported being bullied once or twice a week, 7% indicated they were bullied daily, 9% reported being physically injured as a result of bullying, and 4% of students reported being cyberbullied” (2011). According to the same publication, in a normal 12-month time frame, “nearly 14% of American high school students seriously considered suicide; nearly 11% make plans about how they would end their lives; and 6.3% actually attempt suicide” (SPRC, 2011).  Possibly the most daunting statistic is that suicide is the third leading cause of death amongst youth ages 12-18 (SPRC, 2011).

The statistics, although shocking, don’t tell the whole story. A lot of the youth that are bullied don’t feel as if they are able to report being bullied because of fear of further stigmatization and the fear that nothing will be done about the problem. To add to that, “many teachers do not consider social exclusion a form of bullying, or [they] consider this form of bullying as less harmful” (van der Wal et al., 2003). The commonality that we see between bullying and suicidal ideation is that many of the perpetrators and the victims suffer from a mental health disorder like depression. Many of them have also have low self-esteem and engage in self harm. These risk factors, along with bullying, elevate the risk for suicide in adolescents.

People turn to suicide when they feel like they have nowhere else to turn. When their psychological pain becomes too much the thoughts of suicide develop as an escape valve.
To effectively harness the problem of bullying and suicide, we need “a concentrated and coordinated effort – a partnership if you will – among our families, schools, youth organizations, and communities” (Morino, 1997 as cited in Donegan, 2012). In order to do this, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (2011) lays out action steps to best address both bullying and suicide in hopes of creating that unified front. SPRC (2011) states we need to start prevention early (by addressing bullying before suicidal signs are there, there may be some “significant benefits as children enter the developmental stage when suicide risk begins to rise”), we need to keep up with technology (“young people may use social media and new technologies to express suicidal thoughts that they are unwilling to share with their parents and other adults. Both bullying and suicide prevention programs need to learn how to navigate this new world”), and we need to use a comprehensive approach (we need to focus on the young people and the environment in which they live).

One of the very first prevention programs implemented is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. This program “develops methods of dealing with bullying on a variety of levels including school-level components, individual-level components, classroom-level components, and community-level components…this creates a cohesive plan in which each level reinforces the next” (Donegan, 2012). By using a multi-tiered approach, models like this are more likely to have a proactive and sustained prevention outcome.

Children are often too scared to talk about these two things because they fear it will either get worse, nothing will be done about it to help them out, or they will be stigmatized. Kids need to know the severity of each of these and they need to know what they can do to help. Our youth need to feel it is safe to report bullying, that it is ok to talk about how they are feeling mentally, and if they are having thoughts about suicide it’s imperative to get help.

Bullying and suicide are both very complicated and serious issues. Once these two issues are connected, they begin to become deeper and more complicatedly intertwined. In order to address this, parents, teachers, students, and professionals alike need to talk about these problems so together we can prevent further suicides from taking place; and hopefully, begin to erase the stigma that is associated with both bullying and suicide.

Let’s look back at Amanda Todd once more. In her YouTube video description she writes:
I'm struggling to stay in this world, because everything just touches me so deeply….I did things to myself to make pain go away…” (Grenoble, 2012).

Amanda lost her battle, but we can remember the complexity of her death in our work for solutions. Those who are struggling need to know that there are resources available for them if they are victims of bullying and if the suffer from any mental health disorders; such as The Bully Project, Stop Bullying Now, The Trevor Project, Love Is Louder, Minding Your Mind, Boo2Bullying, and Stand For The Silent. 1-800-273-8255 is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; please call if you ever have thoughts of suicide. Together we can help prevent another heartbreak like Amanda Todd.

About the Author

Nicole Cochran is currently studying to receive her Masters in Social Work from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from Regis University in Denver, Colorado. While Nicole was in her undergraduate degree she became involved with a group called Active Minds. Active Minds is a nationally recognized mental health awareness and suicide prevention organization. In her time with Active Minds, Nicole found a love for suicide prevention and mental health. She is planning on concentrating in mental health and wants to get her LCSW and eventually become a high school counselor helping those who suffer from any mental health diagnosis while continuing to bring awareness to bullying and helping in the prevention of suicide.

Donegan, R. (2012). Bullying and cyberbullying: History, statistics, law, prevention and
analysis. The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, 3(1), 33-42.
Grenoble, R. (2012, Oct 11). Amanda todd: Bullied canadian teen commits suicide after
prolonged battle online and in school . Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/11/amanda-todd-suicide-bullying_n_1959909.html
Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P.
(2001). Bullying behaviors among us youth: Prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. JAMA, 285(16), 2094-2100.
Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC). (2011, March). Suicide and bullying.
Retrieved from http://www.sprc.org/sites/sprc.org/files/library/Suicide_Bullying_Issue_Brief.pdf
Van der Wal, M. F., de Wit, C. A. M., & Hirasing, R. A. (2003). Psychosocial health
among young victims and offenders of direct and indirect bullying. Pediatrics, 111(6), 1312-1317. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/111/6/1312.html


  1. Interesting in that you use the Amanda Todd case.
    I happen to know with almost complete accuracy why Amanda committed suicide (an odd assertion, but I have gathered a lot of information on the subject). Her last 24 hours were spent communicating with her boyfriend and the final straw was an unanswered call. A relatively simple and common story of teen despair. If you are interested, I also have Amanda's chatlogs from appearances on BlogTV - quite educational. These chatlogs are unique to my blog. And btw - they are real.
    There's a ton of questions to be asked and answered regarding the Todd story - what influence did marijuana smoking have? or drinking? or promiscuity? Was it in fact unreal HIGH self-esteem that made her unaware of the consequences of her actions?
    Now you might not want to hear this, but the vast majority of the story is either verifiably untrue or leaves a lot to be considered. The recent documentary shows that she was willingly online and just think for a minute: her video goes locally viral and half of Vancouver knows about it and THEN she is blackmailed? Does this not seem odd that a blackmailer releases the information FIRST? To complicate matters, you might also want to think about digital self-harm. If you want what is possibly the most thorough information about the story, you can visit my blog. Google 'Philip Rose Amanda' perhaps. There are over 200 posts - some can be ignored. I would welcome any feedback you might want to supply. Thank you.

    1. For ease, I have provided this link to what is perhaps one of the most interesting of my posts. Please note: none of this is faked, and it is unique.