Like many, I was saddened to read the latest headlines about two girls -- one from Florida and one from Louisiana -- who died by suicide earlier this month. While their families, friends, and communities grieve, the battle cry has started once again - "we must stop bullying because that's what caused these young girls' deaths." When headlines were made in September 2010 with a string of five young men who died by suicide seemingly because of bullying, the latest era of bullying prevention and anti-bullying campaigns was launched around this very fear -- bullying causes suicide so we must prevent bullying. But there's a problem. The more we insist that bullying is the "cause" behind these suicides, the more we lose sight of the other factors that also likely played a role; and the more we insist that suicide is the "normal" outcome of bullying, the more we may actually be driving kids to that very idea.
Don't get me wrong, of course we know that bullying is a factor in youth suicide. One study by researchers at Yale University estimated the risk of suicidal ideation was between two to nine times higher for youth who were bullied. It is not just those bullied at risk; in fact, several emerging studies suggest that those who both are bullied and bully others are at the highest risk for suicidality, and those who witness bullying are also at risk. But risk is not the same as cause. The vast majority of the estimated 28 percent of youth between the ages of 12 to 18 who report being bullied (9 percent report being cyberbullied) will not think about or engage in suicidal behaviors. In addition, only a small percentage of reported youth suicides specifically listed bullying as a precipitating factor (around 3.2 percent from 2005-2008).
We cannot prevent suicide by simply preventing bullying, and we should not simply prevent bullying for fear of suicide. Yet, the ever present "youth commits suicide because of bullying" headlines seem to suggest as much. Let's consider the particular case from Florida that recently made headlines. Though very apparent that the young girl was targeted through cellphone-based social media, it has also been reported she was hospitalized for mental health and switched schools. It is not clear whether mental health services or other support continued after the youth left the hospital and attended the new school. We also don't know anything else that was potentially happening elsewhere in the youth's life. We simply do not know the whole story to be able to say that bullying was the sole cause.
We also have to consider that perhaps the recent media attention to such suicides is itself a risk factor for these youth. Phoebe Prince. Tyler Clementi. Jaime Rodemeyer. And the list goes on. These are all youth whose names, if not for their deaths and the reported bullying they faced, we would never know. With every additional media report of another youth dying by suicide "because of" bullying we reinforce the notion to at-risk youth that suicide is a normal reaction to bullying, and not only that, these media reports suggest that if they do die by suicide, their name will be known across the country and perhaps the world -- something any youth who feels alone and invisible could desire. Suicide contagion has long been known to be a risk with certain types of reporting, with the strongest effect on adolescents. If we continue to report on youth suicide in this manner we may truly be exacerbating the very thing we want to prevent.
So what can we do? First, we need to recognize that bullying is a problem whether or not it leads to suicide, and we must take active steps to prevent it and provide support to those who feel they have been bullied. In parallel, we need to recognize that bullying prevention alone will not prevent suicide. Schools and parents need to understand the warning signs and prevention for both. Second, we must recognize the other factors that contribute, often alongside bullying, to a youth's decision to die by suicide. We must follow best practices for reporting on suicide -- refraining from describing the means by which the youth died and avoiding quoting first responders and parents about the cause of the suicide. We must stop sensationalizing every youth who has died by suicide, remembering that such reporting could be the very catalyst for the next youth suicide. Finally, we need to honor and recognize those schools and communities who are taking positive steps towards preventing bullying and suicide, rather than just focusing on those where a tragedy has occurred.
In the end, suicide and bullying are both serious and pervasive issues for today's youth which we need to prevent. In order to do so, we need to understand, bullying alone does not cause suicide.