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Deciphering the Complex Link between Youth Suicide and Bullying

In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week, this is the second in a series of posts on preventing and coping with student suicide. For more information on National Suicide Prevention Week, follow the hashtag

It’s a story none of us want to face: A high school teen takes her own life, leaving a heart-wrenching note behind. The note describes how years of constant abuse from fellow students, in school or online, pushed her to the brink.

Sadly, as transformative as social media has been, the same technologies that enable students and teachers to communicate so effortlessly also extend access to those who would do others around them harm.

It’s easy to draw a common sense line between cyberbullying and increased suicide rates. For as long as teen suicide has been around, psychologists and other thought leaders have considered the possibility that bullying might be a contributing factor.

But defining a cause-and-effect relationship between bullying and youth suicide isn’t quite that simple, according to a CDC and Department of Health and Human Services report.

“Framing the discussion of the issue as bullying being a single, direct cause of suicide is not helpful and is potentially harmful,” the report’s authors warn, for several reasons:

  • Students who are bullied may view suicide as a normal, natural response.
  • Blaming youth suicide on bullying alone engenders the kind of finger-pointing and punishment that is not helpful and does little to battle the underlying issues that often contribute to teen suicide.
  • Identifying bullying as the only cause of suicide trivializes the existence of other important risk factors, such as substance abuse, mental illness, family dysfunction, and more.

So what can schools do to both fight back against the scourge of bullying and to prevent teen suicide?

Start by developing a systematic approach to prevent and discourage self-harm and abuse among students. Here’s a few more thoughts and ideas on the topic:

When students feel connected to their schools, they’re less likely to engage in risky behavior.
How do you ensure that every student feels like they’re part of your school community?

“A strong sense of connectedness to caring, responsible adults at school can provide invaluable support to youth who may be struggling socially and/or emotionally,” the CDC reports.

Students need to know that you and your staff are interested in their well-being. Such efforts could be as simple as knowing and greeting students by their first names when they enter your building, or as involved as mandating regular check-ins between staff and students.

Students equipped to cope with problems and solve them are less likely to engage in suicidal behavior.
As with any new skill, kids need to be trained to cope with stress in healthy ways.

Develop programs that teach students how to handle potentially negative situations in positive ways. It’s sometimes easier said than done for students to avoid bullies, but advanced training can help potential victims and bad actors  “develop coping and problem-solving skills, build resilience, and increase their social intelligence,” according to the CDC.

Building empathy in your students is another way to ensure they’re equipped to deal with the social challenges sure to come their way in school.

Students who encounter bullies or bullying—witnesses included—are more likely to encounter feelings of helplessness or detachment from their schools.
Empower students to be positive forces against bullying and violence in schools.

This doesn’t necessarily mean encouraging them to step in every time they witness an altercation. Some situations are dangerous. But it does mean “providing concrete, positive, and proactive ways they can influence the social norms of their peer group so that bullying is seen as an uncool behavior,” writes the CDC.

It also means giving bullying victims and witnesses a safe way to report abuse and concerns to staff—and providing immediate help and counseling when it’s needed.

What steps are you taking to help students report bullying and violence or concern for their fellow classmates in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want more ideas about how to prevent teen suicide? Check out our first post in this series.