Bullying, Mental Health and Suicide

One in three children worldwide are victims of bullying. 

Recently I’ve been reading the research carried out by Professor Dieter Wolke from the University of Warwick which shows that children who have been bullied by peers suffer worse in the longer term than those who have been maltreated by adults. Even as someone who has worked with young people for many years and seen and dealt with all sorts of bullying, I’ve also been alarmed by reading the latest research from www.bullyingstatistics.org and others about the connection between bullying, the mental health of young people, and suicide. 

It is frightening. 

At least half of child suicides in the UK can be connected to bullying. We already know that for every suicide there are at least 100 children who attempt to take their own lives and thousands more who are self-harming, so the true scale of this is very frightening indeed. The American Yale University report that bully victims are up to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims of bullying.

Bullying is unwanted harassment, often aggressive, usually repeated behaviour that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Specific actions can include making threats, spreading rumours, physical, verbal or online attacks, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. Online bullying has replaced the more traditional face to face methods and for the ‘always on’ generation that means round the clock bullying and no respite. At last if you were being bullied when I was at school, you could go home and have some peace. Not any more it seems. 

We have to take this problem more seriously. It is killing kids. 

The research shows how much this kind of ongoing abuse during childhood can be hugely damaging to a child’s mental development. The consequences will include low levels of confidence and self-esteem, body image issues, becoming withdrawn and low aspiration. In more serious cases, bullied children will suffer anxiety, panic attacks, depression and other symptoms which could lead to psychiatric disorders. We already know that over half of young people aged 14 with a clinically diagnosable mental health problem will have them for life. Over 75% if we extend the age range to 18. Negative and dangerous coping strategies will include self-harming, drug and alcohol abuse.

Even the bullies are impacted. They also seem to find it harder to cope and have increased risk of mental health issues including depression. They also have poor outcomes and many end up in the criminal justice system. 

We have to take this problem more seriously. It is killing kids. 

Speaking as a teacher and as a parent, one of the things that worries me about bullying is that some adults, including parents and teachers, see bullying as a part of growing up. A rite of passage almost. Young people report being told to ignore it or to make some new friends. That might work in low level cases but it is hardly surprising that the research says that up to 90% of victims of ongoing bullying don’t tell their parents about being bullied. 50% said they felt they needed to deal with the bullying on their own. Why do they think that? We have to change this. No young person should suffer this alone and without someone helping them to stop it. We must remove the stigma attached to bullying. Young people must feel that they can talk to their parents/carers and their teachers, and in turn that early intervention opportunities will be taken before the bullying sets in and causes long term mental health problems.

Some adults, including parents and teachers, see bullying as a part of growing up. A rite of passage almost.

Unchecked, as discussed earlier, bullying can lead to mental health problems and they can lead to suicidal thoughts. Some of the warning signs include depression, ongoing sadness, withdrawal, losing interest, trouble sleeping, eating disorders, talking about death or dying, harmful activities such as alcohol or substance abuse or self-harming, and expressing difficulties coping or that things would be better without them. Of course, in some cases there will be little in the way of warning signs. After all, if a young person is not talking to anyone about being bullied then they might also be hiding their suicidal feelings. 

We have to educate the adults and the kids that they have to talk about this, and the adults have to take it seriously. 

This will save lives. 

Dreaming Big

HeadStart Wolverhampton’s mission statement is:

To promote, protect and preserve the mental wellbeing of 10-16 year olds across our city, by inspiring them to dream big, supporting them to maintain motivation and control, and equipping them with the skills to cope with setbacks and adversity. 

So, how important is dreaming big?

In preparing our HeadStart Phase 3 bid for Big Lottery, our consultation and needs analysis told us that many young people growing up in Wolverhampton have low aspirations and little sense of control in their lives. For those facing additional challenges such as being a member of a family with a low income, poverty, a history of mental health issues, or being a young carer, or witnessing domestic violence, it was even harder to imagine a positive future. 

For those young people with goals, they told us it can be hard to stay motivated, especially when faced with challenges, and when things go wrong it can feel like no-one notices; or that there is nowhere to go unless their ‘problem’ is bad enough to warrant help or they are considered disruptive or naughty. 

The truth of the matter is that too many of us give up on our dreams.

When the going gets tough we get going, giving up rather than working through the pain of another failure.

Dreams are a starting point. As George Lucas said, “Dreams are extremely important. You can’t do it unless you imagine it”. Walt Disney also said “If you can dream it, you can achieve it”. Elvis Presley said ambition was needed to make dreams a reality when he said “ambition is a dream with a V8 engine”. 

You can’t do it unless you imagine it”
— George Lucas

We want our young people to dream big, to believe they can aspire to greater things and have positive futures. Not all of them can play for Manchester United or be a pop star. But they might learn such great lessons from trying and pursuing their dreams that they have success in other areas they wouldn’t have thought of. 

High achievers actually tend to focus at the middle distance of their dream. A target that is out of reach and challenging, but possible with effort. Then they refocus on the next step and accept that the course they planned might change. Many dreams have grown with each step, with each bunch of learning and experience.

Make a dent in the universe
— Steve Jobs

In the famous Steve Jobs commencement address to Stanford University he told the graduates to go and pursue their dreams and trust that at some stage in the future they would be able to connect the dots as he had in his life. His steps came together to realise his dream of changing the world through computers, or as he put by “making a dent in the universe”. 

Dreaming big provides a platform for growth and success.

It all starts with the dream.

Can Failure Teach Kids More Than Success? 

CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson. http://nyphotographic.com

CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson. http://nyphotographic.com

I’ve often thought that the one thing that Richard Branson and other mega-successful people have that I don’t have is the ability to make a mistake once and learn from it so they never make the same mistake again. I’m sure there’s much more to it than that, but I do recognise that it tends to take me much longer before the penny drops. 

It’s interesting how people like Richard Branson, for all their success, seem to talk most about their failures. As though that was the turning point. 

So, why are we so obsessed with success when it seems that failure is at least as important? Kids tell us they feel under real pressure at school to be a success. Tragically, some even take their own life because they think they are not successful. Teachers are performance managed by results – the results of their young people. Schools are judged by Ofsted on the success of their young people. 

Parents too don't want to see their children fail. I know I didn't. With the best of intentions, we want to shelter our kids from disappointment and heartache and want them to experience that euphoria of success, and of winning.  

But the reality is of course that kids actually need to fail because it builds resilience and coping strategies. We know that resilient young people are better able to handle life's challenges, take the knocks, ride the punches, see the bigger picture, build and maintain positive relationships and take these skills into adulthood. The disappointment and heartache we want to shield them from actually build these skills. 

Business seems to have caught on. 

Photo used under CC license from www.amenclinics.com

Photo used under CC license from www.amenclinics.com

Where failure was once ‘not an option’ it now seems that more and more businesses are encouraging failure. The Steve Jobs’ mantra “stay hungry, stay foolish” seems to sit alongside another mantra “fail often, fail fast” for innovators, the ambitious and the entrepreneurs. 

There are many stories of highly successful people experiencing failure. J K Rowling was an unemployed, depressed single mother who described herself as ‘the biggest failure she knew.’ She now describes how rock bottom became the ‘solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.’ Richard Branson, weighed down by dyslexia and poor performance at school, was told by his headteacher that he would either end up in prison or become a millionaire. Even Paul McGee, the ‘SUMO Guy’ who is so influential to the work of HeadStart, tells the story of how his SUMO book was rejected by 13 publishers before going on to be a bestseller. 

So, I think we should teach kids that failure isn’t fatal but learning. That not only is failure inevitable, it is a great learning tool. Show them how it pushed successful people onto bigger and better things. The key is fail smarter. To harness failure. To set out to succeed and give it everything, but to accept that if failure comes there will be a whole bunch of learning alongside which will make success that bit clearer next time, and increase the determination. 

The biggest lesson might just be that to give up is the one sure way to fail.