Bullying is a truly horrific phenomenon that has a wide array of terrible consequences. One of these terrible consequences is an increased risk of mental health issues and even suicide, for both the person bullied and the person perpetrating the bullying.
But does this mean that bullying actually causes suicide? This is an incredibly complex question. There seems to be a lot of confusion about the relationship between bullying and suicide. News stories focusing on the tragic suicide of young children and teenagers often point to instances of bullying. The focus on these individual stories can easily lead us to believe that there must be a causal relationship between bullying and suicide. After all, we keep reading stories in which bullying occurs and a suicide follows.
These deaths are all horrible tragedies, and the bullying these children experienced is unacceptable. But we do have to be careful about how we report on the relationship between these phenomena. When news stories report on a suicide preceded by instances of bullying, the two concepts become inextricably linked in readers’ minds and the conclusion that follows—that bullying leads to suicide—may not be entirely scientifically accurate.
A proper understanding of the relationship between bullying and suicide is essential. If we believe that bullying is a sole cause of suicide, then we might spend a lot of time and effort on bullying prevention strategies as suicide prevention, only to find that bullying is only one of many factors that increase suicide risk and a focus on bullying alone is not enough to avert more suicides. In other words, our focus may become misplaced and we may ignore other important causes that must be addressed in order to truly lower the risk of suicide.
Focusing only on bullying as the cause of suicide also implies that a young person’s suicide is entirely the fault of his or her schoolmates. Instilling guilt in children following the death by suicide of one of their classmates is not an acceptable approach to dealing with the aftermath of a suicide or of preventing future suicides. Stopping bullying is essential, but blaming children for an acquaintance’s death is not the proper approach.
So what do we know about the relationship between the two? As stated earlier, we do know that involvement in bullying, either as a victim or a perpetrator, raises the risk of suicide. In addition, even witnessing bullying can lead to feelings of helplessness and poor school connectedness, which can be a risk factor for mental health issues (although it is not a sole cause). On the other hand, most youth involved in bullying do not display suicidal behavior, even though bullying may be one of many risk factors of suicidal behavior.
It’s always important to keep multiple risk factors in mind when talking about suicide. Saying that bullying is a sole cause of suicide is not only incorrect but can even be harmful. This is because such a “single-cause” mentality perpetuates the notion that suicide might be an understandable and acceptable response to bullying. In addition, this kind of thought process can lead to sensational reporting, which we’ve already seen in several instances noted above. It also takes attention away from other important risk factors that are less “sensational” and less easily reported on, such as mental illness, substance abuse, poor coping skills, and family dysfunction. Yet these risk factors deserve just as much attention as bullying and must be central components in any adequate response to suicide risk. For all these reasons, it’s absolutely essential that we not overstate the relationship between bullying and suicide. There is of course a relationship, but it is not what we may be led to believe by much of the media coverage on the topic.
Despite all of this, it is still of course the case that bullying does happen and is a risk factor for mental health issues and even suicide. Given all this, it is essential that schools do everything they can to reduce the incidence of this damaging behavior. What should schools be doing to prevent and respond to bullying? There are several strategies schools can employ that help with both stopping bullying and improving students’ mental health. For example, universal programs that increase school connectedness are effective for both bullying prevention and enhancing mental health in schools. Teaching coping and life skills, including resilience and tolerance of others, can also be effective for both bullying prevention and mental health promotion. Schools should put comprehensive policies and anti-discrimination rules in place, form a committee to review and update them regularly, and ensure that these rules are being enforced in a way that’s obvious to students and their families. Since students with different gender or sexual orientations and from different cultural backgrounds are more likely to be bullied—and to have higher risk of attempting suicide—school staff should be taught about vulnerable populations and how to protect them.
Perhaps most importantly, schools must show that they are taking every incidence (including cyberbullying outside of school) extremely seriously and remaining consistent in their response. If the response is not clear and consistent, students lose trust in the school and their sense of connectedness can erode. Working on the whole school climate is essential: A positive school climate can create broad protective factors for students that help with both bullying and suicide prevention.
The mantra that “association is not causality” cannot be repeated often enough because in instances like the connection between bullying and suicide it is persistently ignored. Journalists must be taught to take greater care in how they report on correlations between two phenomena so that their readers do not infer that one is the direct and unique cause of the other.
With the relationship between bullying and suicide remaining complex and in some ways unknown, it is essential that schools not focus narrowly on bullying prevention as a sole means to prevent suicide. Rather schools should be focusing more broadly on helping students build and cultivate protective factors. These kinds of interventions hold the greatest promise for building a foundation of resilience among young adults everywhere.