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.
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 The consequences will include low levels of confidence and self-esteem, body image issues, becoming withdrawn and low aspiration.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.
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.