According to a study published by JAMA Pediatrics, bullied teens are twice as likely to consider suicide and nearly two-and-a-half times as likely to actually attempt suicide. In addition, the study found that teens who were cyberbullied were more than three times as likely to contemplate suicide as other kids. October is National Bullying Prevention Month and in observance, we spoke  with Adelaide Robb, MD, Chief of the Division of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, about bullying and adolescent suicide.

The implications of bullying

Bullying makes a child feel hopeless, helpless, and hated, which can lead to low self-esteem, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to Dr. Robb.

In response to the study, Dr. Robb said, “It’s not just bullying.” She noted that bullying is just one of many potential contributors that can lead to suicide. Other risk factors include depression, bipolar disorder, psychiatric disorders, physical abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, LBGT or a prior suicide attempt.

Bullying is no longer just a problem that arises at recess or on the school bus. With advances in technology, kids can bully others through devices and equipment such as cell phones, computers and tablets as well as communication channels like social media sites, apps, text messages, chat and websites.

Traditional bullying vs. cyberbullying

While previous studies reported that traditional bullying and cyberbullying were equally harmful, this study found that cyberbullying increased the risk of suicide in children.

Cyberbullying can intensify a teen’s vulnerability because it allows peers to post negative messages anonymously and can also quickly reach a wider audience, Dr. Robb explained. While a teen may be able to delete inappropriate messages, texts or photos, the content is stored online, which could result in a victim reliving these previous demeaning experiences.

How to tell if your child is being bullied

Increased awareness of bullying is important and can help parents intervene before it escalates further. Dr. Robb lists several common signs of bullying that parents should be aware of, including:

  • Sudden changes in friends
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork
  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Lost or destroyed possessions
  • Self-destructive behavior

For more information on the signs a child is being bullied or bullying others, visit www.stopbullying.gov.

Furthermore, parents should be aware of the signs of suicide in teens such as giving away possessions, not wanting to be around family, hopelessness and a lack of future-oriented thinking. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline lists additional warning signs and how to get help.

What can parents and teachers do to prevent bullying?

Parents, caregivers and teachers in the community can help prevent and stop bullying. It’s never too early to start – bullying can begin as early as kindergarten and suicidal thoughts could start as early as first grade, according to Dr. Robb.

Dr. Robb recommends parents check in with kids often to keep the lines of communication open, talk to them about bullying and monitor their online activity, including social media accounts and apps.

Additionally, parents and teachers need to enforce zero-tolerance policies addressing bullying at home and school, Dr. Robb said. These policies should set clear expectations that fighting among siblings and classmates will not be tolerated.

She emphasized that parents should “make sure kids are getting treatment for the mental health issues associated with bullying.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adelaide Robb Adelaide Robb, MD, is the Chief of the Division of Psychology and Behavioral Health, specializing in pediatric mood disorders, schizophrenia and post traumatic stress disorder. She is an internationally known clinical researcher and has participated in and led multiple therapeutic trials for children with a variety of behavioral and psychiatric conditions.

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