BULLIED TO DEATH: Bullying, Cyberbullying and Youth Suicide, Part 1 (Guests: Judge Tom Jacobs & Dr. James Sutton)

BTSpReportThis special report, done in interview format, is presented in three parts. It addresses issues of bullying (traditional and cyber) and resulting instances of suicide in young people. Suggestions for intervention are also offered.

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Retired Juvenile Court Judge Tom Jacobs of Arizona received this anonymous plea for help on his Ask the Judge website [link]. (Go to this link to see his response [link].)

 I am very suicidal and I am bullied very bad and I really need help I have asked teachers and I have talked to the therapist and it does not help and I have been feeling more depressed lately and I have been thinking about ending it but can I file against the people who bully me (sic)

 

JacobsSuttonOur young people are our most precious resource. With that in mind, Judge Jacobs and Texas child and adolescent psychologist, Dr. James Sutton share their insights into this growing concern and offer some ways to address it. (Dr. Sutton is the founder and host of The Changing Behavior Network [link].)

What are some of the latest incidences of suicide attributable to bullying and cyberbullying?

(Jacobs) It is important to note at the outset that most teenagers and young adults who are bullied don’t commit suicide. However, some do. Statistics show that suicide notes are the exception, not the rule. Consequently, the motivation and final thoughts of a suicide victim remain undisclosed. Traditional bullying or cyberbullying may have been a contributing factor in each of the following incidents.

Rebecca Ann Sedwick of Florida was targeted on Facebook and in text messages. “You’re ugly,” and “Why are you still alive?” were some of the taunts she received. She changed schools and stopped using her Facebook account. However, she signed on to new apps where the bullying continued. In September, 2013, the 12-year-old jumped to her death.

Hannah Smith lived in England and was 14 years old. In August, 2013, she hanged herself after relentless bullying about her weight and a relative’s death.

Charlotte Dawson was a model and television personality in Australia. Twitter trolls led to a suicide attempt in 2012. She became an advocate against bullying but succumbed to the weight of cyberbullying in 2014 by hanging herself at home. Charlotte was 47.

Why are some youngsters more susceptible to being bullied than others?

(Sutton) The short answer is they are more capable of being bullied, often being withdrawn, unsure of themselves and uncomfortable in social encounters with peers. Students showing these characteristics can be easy targets for bullies, especially when they are the new kid in the school and classroom.

Not surprising, some of these youngsters have a troubled home life or can even be foster children that have been removed from their home of origin. These children and teens may have been suffering in silence for a long time. They don’t feel very good about themselves, so they are uncomfortable with any efforts to deal with the bullies on their own. Bullies pick up on this and pour it on even more.

(Jacobs) Evidence presented in court cases where someone is charged with a bullying-related crime points to several common factors shared by the victims: a disruptive home and/or school environment; isolation; and a history of depression and mental health treatment.

Why would a bullied youngster begin to think of suicide?

(Sutton) It’s because their misery and pain are trumping their will to live. That’s saying a lot, because the will to live is innate; it’s an incredibly strong drive in all of us. So a youngster thinking seriously of taking his or her life is saying that living another hour, day or week in their current state of distress is unacceptable.

Consider this, also: Suicide always occurs in a low moment. The thought in that moment is that things will NEVER be any better, ever. In reality, this is rarely the case, but a youngster on the cusp of self-destruction can’t see it. The youngster that contacted Judge Jacobs was asking for help, but many kids don’t know how to ask, or they feel they are too far gone for help, anyway.

Are there any clues youngsters might give us regarding thoughts of suicide?

(Sutton) The first thing we think of is that a youngster “looks” depressed and down, but that’s not always the case. Some kids don’t show it on their faces, or they attempt to disguise it so no one will ask them questions they don’t want to answer.

It’s important to look at grades, relationships, and eating and sleeping habits; these can’t be disguised for long. Grades in school, especially when they drop quickly and dramatically, are a strong barometer of a problem somewhere. These youngsters might also pull away from friends and even family members. There also might be changes in eating habits and they either can’t sleep well at night, or they want to sleep all the time.

There also might be clues in a youngster’s conversation, much like the words of the youngster contacting Judge Jacobs. In visiting with a child or teen, I listen closely for evidence of the Three “I”s: Intolerable, Interminable and Inescapable. Although they won’t use these exact words, youngsters can express them clearly in other ways: “I can’t take it anymore (Intolerable),” “It’s never going to stop (Interminable),” and “I just can’t get away from it (Inescapable).” The Three “I”s are huge red flags.

Another strong clue is a youngster’s general level of impulsivity. In other words, how reactive are they in the moment they become upset? Impulsivity exists on a continuum, and it generally fits in with one’s overall temperament. It only makes sense that a highly impulsive and reactive child or teen is in trouble even when they are experiencing a small or moderate amount of distress.

Here’s an analogy that’s easy to share. Imagine getting an email that really upsets you. You compose a scathing response and are ready to hit “Send”. Hitting “Send” is an impulsive act in that instant of frustration and anger; it’s irreversible once done. Later, you might wish a million times you had not hit “Send”, but you did, and you can’t take it back. By contrast, you might read your email once more and decide to save it as a draft, giving yourself some time to think about it. Chances are, once you cool down a bit, you might tone down that email, or not even send it at all.

The email represents suicidal thought; hitting “Send” quickly represents a suicidal act. Fortunately, a less impulsive youngster (like the one who contacted Judge Jacobs) might still be having thoughts of suicide, but they are not in an immediately lethal state.

(Jacobs) Parents who monitor their kids’ use of social media may notice a sudden lack of communication on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. This may be because their child has opened new accounts on sites unknown to the parents such as Voxer, Yik Yak, Ask.fm, etc. There have been teen suicides where the bullying continued on these hidden sites all the while telling Mom and Dad that everything is okay – “I’m fine.” Rebecca Ann Sedwick did just this unbeknownst to her parents.

 

This concludes Part 1. The interview continues on Part 2.

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