Although bullies have always been with us, the media covering suicides during the last year have brought this issue to the forefront. “Oh, kids are just like that,” some adults say. But that’s not true. Bullying can cause long-lasting health issues that cost billions of dollars.
The deliberate attempts to hurt, threaten, or frighten someone with words or actions can come from one person, a number of people, or a group, usually in repeated actions. It is the difference in power between the bullies and bullied that make this possible. Examples are teasing, calling names, keeping others from going where they want or doing what they want, or hurting others physically. Bullies can do this directly, through others, or with technology such as the Internet and texting.
Some people estimate that one in seven American school children is either a bully or a victim. Others guess that one-fourth of school kids are bullied. Some estimates are as high as three-fourths of school kids being affected by bullying. Studies show that 160,000 children skip school every day because they fear being attacked or intimidated. LGBT teens are bullied two to three times those of their peers, and nine out of ten LGBT students have experienced harassment at school.
The result of all this persecution is bad health. According to one study, children bullied by peers are over twice as likely to experience psychotic symptoms at age 12 when this group is compared with children who did not undergo this trauma. These psychotic symptoms can evolve into mental illness affecting people throughout their lives.
Physical health for both children and adults is also endangered by childhood bullying. In “The Poverty Clinic” (The New Yorker, March 21, 2011, pp. 25-32), Paul Tough discusses the use of stress physiology and neuroendocrinology to study the physical effects of anxiety and its chemical changes in a person’s brain and body.
The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study from 1994 and 1998 used patients enrolled in the San Diego Kaiser HMO by sending a questionnaire to patients who came for a comprehensive medical exam. They were asked to indicate their childhood experiences of suffering ten categories of “adverse childhood experiences”—emotional neglect, sexual abuse, etc. Over 17,000 patients—almost 70 percent—responded. Of these the majority were Caucasian, educated, middle-aged, and middle-to-upper-middle-class.
Each one of the categories was assigned the number one for the ACE score. The patients’ health from addictive behavior and/or chronic disease increased with the ACE score. A score of 4 or higher indicated people were twice as likely to smoke and to have been diagnosed with heart disease and cancer as those with 0. They were seven times as likely to be alcoholics. Childhood trauma can also result in early death.
Because the study relied on memory, it was criticized as being faulty. But more people will under report trauma than over report it. Another study recording adverse experiences of children supported the finding that kids suffering from early trauma were almost twice as likely to have a greater risk of heart disease.
Researchers found physical reasons for the heightened risk of illness because of trauma. The brain’s reaction to stress can be helpful in a “fight or flight” survival. But the emotional fear and anxiety accompanied by increased blood pressure and heart rate, activated neurotransmitters, and inflammatory proteins surging throughout the body can lead to negative physical changes. The change in brain DNA prevents it from properly regulating response to stress, thus children may not be able to sit still and follow directions. Adults may demonstrate more aggression, impulsive behavior, and weakened cognition. Disrupted brain circuits lead to literacy and learning problems while it heightens the risk of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, depression, and substance abuse.;
So what to do about bullying? There are millions of hits on the Internet about this. A beginning comes from the need to educate the community about the importance of this issue and not say, “Oh, it’s just kids being kids.” The most important thing adults can do is not to just stand by—take action. Some programs teach young people to become more assertive and talk about their problems without criticizing them. Adults need to listen to their kids instead of thinking that they’re always telling on someone else.
Julie Anne Peters has written what may be the best book on teen bullying and suicide, By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead (Hyperion, 2010). In this novel Peters describes Daelyn Rice’s determination to be successful in committing suicide after several botched attempts, one which left her unable to speak because she scarred her throat drinking a caustic chemical in a suicide attempt when she was ten years old. After that she could barely speak, and her parents tried to monitor her every move. Her solution five years later is a blog for “completers” that gives advice about killing oneself but requires her to wait 23 days. The people on the blog share stories show the tragic effects of bullying about body size and gender identification as well as interpersonal relationship failures. What Daelyn doesn’t realize is that the information is actually discouraging because it describes the pain endured by those who commit suicide and the serious issues if the attempt is a failure.
The subject is grim and the writing intense, but Peters shows Rice’s growing sense of optimism as she grudgingly makes friends with a dying boy and begins to change her mind about her end goal. At the conclusion of the book is a no-nonsense guide to bullying, defining it and then giving common-sense advice for stopping it. The website cited in the book provides information about the book, discussion questions, and information about bullying and suicide. This book should be required reading for all young adults and adults.