In November 2011, a 10-year-old girl from the small downstate community of Ridge Farm, Ill., hung herself in her bedroom closet. Her family said they believe teasing and bullying at the fifth-grader’s elementary school caused her so much pain that she took her life.
Although authorities are investigating Ashlynn Conner’s suicide and have said they are considering bullying as a factor, it is often difficult to pinpoint why a young person commits suicide.
What is clear, however, is that bullying is a growing problem in America. It is an act of violence that can cause severe social and emotional stress, and even death. According to the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control, bullying is a “widespread” public health problem in the United States, with one out of five high school students, saying they were bullied on school property, according to a 2009 survey.
Michelle Martin, a licensed social worker and a full-time professor at Dominican’s Graduate School of Social Work, said that bullying has clearly increased due to the rise in Internet usage. Cyber bullying can now occur through e-mails, text messaging and videos posted on websites or sent through cell phones.
“Children have more opportunities for anonymous bullying. Often, people will be far more blatant when their identity is concealed,” Martin said.
Martin said that when a bully does not have to be face-to-face with the victim, there is a greater tendency for impudence. The effects of bullying on children are devastating overall, particularly lowering self-esteem, she said.
“The reason why the effects of bullying are so damaging,” Martin said, “is because so often bullies target the most vulnerable aspects of the victim–something about their physical appearance, their sexual orientation or something very private about their families.”
Alisa Beyer, an assistant professor of psychology at Dominican said, “In one study, adults who recalled being bullied in their youth were three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts or inclinations.”
Beyer said the effects of bullying take a serious toll on a child and can carry on into adulthood. Even seemingly harmless playground bullying has caused children to consider taking their lives to end the torment.
Martin said, “In my experience, the most common way that a child learns about suicide is through the suicide of a friend or family member.” The social worker said that children often threaten suicide but do not really want to commit the act, so parents and teachers must take warnings seriously.
Children can be affected by depression to the same extent as adults. “But with children, depression often manifests in irritability and is thus often misdiagnosed as oppositional defiance disorder or conduct disorder,” Martin said.
Beyer said 2.5 percent of children in the U.S. suffer from depression.
Martin said, “It’s almost as if people are afraid that talking about suicide will plant a seed in a child’s mind as an option.” She said this could be very possible, so it is a good idea to be cautious, but not reactionary, when discussing suicide with children.
It is important that a child’s complaint about bullying be taken seriously. Some children keep the pain they are feeling to themselves, so parents and teachers must keep a look out for suicidal tendencies.
Martin said very few anti-suicide programs are effective. “Much of the anti-suicide programs have not been found to be successful because they are not based upon research findings,” she said. There needs to be a higher importance placed on improving anti-suicide educational curriculum in order to help children fight their pain.
– Tia Soumbasis, Contributing Writer