Bullying, suicide and even being LGBTQ are commonly depicted as being connected in the media. However, one need not be LGBTQ to be bullied into suicide. One need only look up stories of Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, Phoebe Prince or Hope Witsell to see how often “outsiders” committed suicide. Prince was an Irish girl who had had relocated to a rural Massachusetts town.

Bullying is hardly a new concept. Charles Atlas convinced bullied male victims into buying his fitness guides so that they could endure their tormentors.

Think back to your middle or high school days. Were you ever subjected to any of the following?

  • Constantly handed around by other students physically
  • Verbally abused by other students
  • Intimidated by other students
  • Threatened or coerced into doing something out despite disinterest
  • Harassed, taunted or repeatedly teased by another student to the point of harm
  • Called undesired or unflattering names by other students
  • Repeatedly made the subject of gossip, lies and misinformation among other students
  • Ostracized by other students

All these behaviors are bullying. Bullying is intentionally and constantly causing harm and/or injury, by a person or group, to someone unable to properly defend himself.

Cyberbullying

This is a far newer concept that takes victimization beyond the school’s grounds and to wherever the victim goes. Cyberbullying has several twists on the traditional methods of bullying.

  • It is permanent
  • Bullies can harass anonymously
  • It has no walls or boundaries
  • A bully can influence and victimize a very large audience

Bullying Behaviors: Range and Severity

Bullying comes in many forms: verbal harassment, physical harassment and even gestural harassment.

The Verbal

Direct: Insults, name-calling, ridicule and cruel teasing or taunting.

Indirect: Convincing another to verbally abuse someone, spreading malicious rumors, anonymous phone calls, offensive texts and e-mails, demeaning content put up on websites.

The Physical

Direct: Striking, kicking, throwing things, slapping, shoving and outright use of weapons.

Indirect: Deliberately and unfairly excluding someone or hiding things.

The Gestural

Direct: Threatening gestures or staring someone down.

Indirect: Repeatedly turning away from the victim.

The most common target of bullying, especially among young people, are individuals who stand out from the crowd or belong to a marginalized community. One California study asked students how frequently they heard biased remarks. The forms of verbal harassment those students claimed to hear most frequently involved sexual orientation, race, body size and gender presentation.

Pre-Existing Vulnerabilities

These are all youth demographics with pre-existing vulnerabilities toward bullies, making them common targets of bullying.

  • Special education/learning disabled students
  • The depressed
  • The socially awkward or autistic
  • Those with developmental delays or naivete
  • LGBTQ individuals
  • The obese
  • Youths who convey desperation or poor judgment in acquiring friends
  • Youths with pre-existing suicidal tendencies

With so many news stories about bullying, some wonder where or not it has increased in recent years. Longitudinal studies held in both Europe and North America, between 1996 and 2006, indicated that most countries had seen a marked decrease in bullying despite the fact that more behaviors could be classified as bullying. When analyzing the prevalence of bullying within the United States, a 2003 study indicated that 7,182 children had been bullied between grades 6 and 10. This survey also assessed the frequency of bullying in its different forms over a two month period.

  • 20.8% had been physically abused.
  • 53.6% had been verbally abused.
  • 51.4% had been socially abused.
  • 13.6% had been cyberbullied.

Another study from 2011 assessed youth risk behavior in US schools. It asked 15,425 high school students if they had been bullied in the last year.

  • 20.1% reported that they had been bullied on school grounds in the last year, most of whom were female, white or 9th graders
  • 16.2% reported that they had been cyberbullied in the last year, most of whom were female, white or 9th graders

Are Bullying-Related Deaths on the Rise?

Between 1950 and 2007, two-thirds of all bullying-related deaths had only been reported in English-language newspapers over the last 10 years. This raises the question of whether this is a trend in bullying or in greater media attention. We do not know at this time due to sufficient data verifying if either point, or both, is the reason for this sharp increase.

In a 2003 survey addressing how 184 middle-school-age victims of cyberbullying were made to feel, girls reported higher instances of anger, frustration and sadness, while more boys experienced embarrassment or fear. That said, just over half of both sexes reported not being bothered by the attempt.

How Bullying Leads to Suicide

  1. The victim has one or more pre-existing vulnerabilities
  2. The vulnerability invites bullies to pounce on the perceived weakness of the victim
  3. This attack leads to the diminishment of hope, mood, self-esteem, self-worth and sensations of confinement, abandonment, insomnia, withdrawal and anxiety
  4. All of the negative consequences of being victimized inspire suicidal ideation, attempts of suicide and even succeeding in the attempt

Who Are the Bullies?

According to a cross-sectional study of over 2,200 Finnish adolescents aged 13 to 16, only 7.4% cyberbullied another youth over a six month period. Variables in who becomes a bully include hyperactivity, issues with conduct, substance abuse, headaches and feeling unsafe at school.

When looking at the meta-data of 11 international studies on the topic, victimized children were twice as likely to have psychosomatic problems, bullies have a 165% greater chance of having psychosomatic problems and bully-victims, victimized individuals who respond to their trauma by become bullies themselves, have a 222% greater risk of developing psychosomatic problems when compared to uninvolved peers.

Psychosomatic problems include headaches, backaches, abdominal pain, sleeping issues, poor appetite and even bed-wetting,

Depression and Bullying

Depression occurs from both traditional bullying and cyberbullying and is more common in victims who are frequently bullied or bully others.

Suicidality and Bullying

While there is no 1:1 confirmation that bullying always leads to suicide, a massive research project involving 37 cases and 16 countries revealed the following insights.

  • Victims of bullying were more likely to engage in suicidal ideation and attempt suicide or non-suicidal self-injury. Furthermore, the more often the victimization, the greater their likelihood of engaging in these behaviors.
  • Bullies were also more likely to engage in suicidal ideation and attempt suicide or non-suicidal self-injury with an even higher wider percentage change than victims.
  • Bully-victims were at a greater range of suicidal ideation but there was no input on likelihood to attempt suicide or non-suicidal self-injury.

It seems that bullies are the party most likely to try and take their own lives.

The LGBTQ Factor

One 2010 survey asked 468 Austrian gay and bisexual men about their suicidality. Although 18% admitted a history of making attempts, half of this subsection explained that they had done so out of a denial of acceptance and as enduring harassment at school.

Gender Difference?

Yet another Finnish study followed over 5,000 children born in 1981 and followed their development over 17 years. Of these children:

  • Any of them that had bullied or been victimized at the age of 8 were continually followed to age 33. Of this subsection, 9% of boys were either victimizing and/or being victimized on a frequent basis and 0.9% of girls were frequently bullies but 3.7% were frequently victimized
  • 42 of these cases engaged in nonfatal suicide attempts, while 15 successfully committed suicide.
  • Another distinction between boys and girls is that boys neither bullied nor were victimized after being treated for conduct issues and depression. Girls still suffered frequent victimization even after controlling for conduct and depression. Notably, there were only two instances where a girl succeeded at suicide.

A Scottish study from 2008 indicated that nearly 4,000 adolescents between ages 13 and 16 had either bullied or been victimized. Victimization by peers indicated an increased chance of becoming a bully. Bully-victims were frequently delinquents, regardless of gender, though girl bully-victims were far more prone to self-harm.

Suicide Risk Factors

This is a collection of 10 short-term risk factors associated with suicide.

  • Ideation
  • Substance abuse becomes excessive or abusive
  • Purposeless
  • Anxiety/Insomnia
  • Trapped
  • Hopelessness
  • Withdrawal
  • Anger and craving vengeance
  • Recklessness and thoughtless behavior
  • Mood changes that are often dramatic

At the end of the day, this is neither a new problem nor one that is easily solved. Suicide and suicidal behavior are bad outcomes to bad things that happen to vulnerable people. Prevention can be accomplished by minimizing the chances of bad things happening and by strengthening a person’s resilience and mental well-being from early childhood onward.