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Bullying: Why We Should Care

This past week, somebody I knew from my graduating high school class died of a heroin overdose.  As the outpourings of grief and mourning washed over my Facebook page, the bitterness I felt surprised me: I would not remember him fondly, as so many of his “friends” proclaimed they would.  I would remember him as the hostile, mean teenager who tormented my friends and me relentlessly during our high school years.  The hate I’d always felt for him – the fear, the outrage, both the physical and emotional damage he inflicted – came screaming back, even after all this time.  I figured after six years, after countless successes, after all the good I had done and experienced, the love I now knew, I could forgive and forget.  Honestly, his name had been lost to me up until that moment.  It’s the first time I’ve thought about him in years…

There are no shortages of bullies in schools.  Any kid can tell you that.  Recent and extensive national coverage on bullying, sparked by an upswing in suicides over the past year, shows that it can come in all forms and from any direction: Home, school, internet.  It can happen to any kid, for any number of reasons.  It hurts everybody it touches, and it appears to happen to everybody, at one point in their lives.  Again, nothing new. “It’s part of growing up.” “It makes you stronger.”  Et cetera.

That sort of nonchalance is common.  Bullying should be expected – it’s a right of passage.

Incidents involving particularly violent bullying have made national headlines at least sixteen times this year.  Out of these nationally highlighted incidents, eleven of them ended with the bullied victim taking his or her life.  To say that bullying is “just a part of growing up,” that it all makes you stronger somehow…it is an archaic and harmful way of thinking that, according to CNN and other news outlets reporting on the bullying trend, is an all too common thought process in our schools.  Who do we hold responsible?  Administration?  Teachers?  Parents?  The bullies themselves?

In several of these incidents, criminal charges were brought against the bullies themselves.  We’ve been forced to analyze how large a part bullying played in the deaths of these teens, and how large a part their own mental health played.  In Phoebe Prince’s case, nine teens were charged with the responsibility of her suicide.  The defense argued that Phoebe was already dealing with depression, though, and that this wasn’t the other teens’ faults – Phoebe was a sad girl who committed suicide.  In Tyler Clementi’s case, two of his Rutger’s schoolmates are being charged with the violation of his privacy after streaming live feed without his permission of him having sexual relations with another man.  Three days later, Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman, jumped off the George Washington Bridge.  Possible charges are still pending in regards to responsibility of Clementi’s death, though their lawyers are arguing that their clients didn’t push him off that bridge.  Nobody made him jump.  And perhaps it’s true, on some level.

The same can be said for the others.  Nobody made 13-year-old Asher Brown shoot himself in his living room.  Nobody made 15-year-olds Justin Aaberg and Billy Lucas and 13-year-old Seth Walsh hang themselves.

From a mental health standpoint, it’s pretty obvious that these teens may have been facing issues of their own.  But we can’t ignore the external forces that played a part in their deaths.  For some of them, working through the confusion and uncertainty regarding their own identities was more than enough, but add on top of that bullying in school and on the internet?  It’s hard enough being a teen these days, let alone being tormented every day simply for who you are.

Twenty percent of teens will experience some form of depression or another before they turn eighteen.  Shifting hormones and major life changes – both internal and external – can add to a teen’s stressors and greatly increase their chances for depression and anxiety-related disorders.  Add to that bullying as a serious threat to a teen’s health and a significant lack of support on the school’s end, and you’ve got a tragedy in the making.  At this point, we can admit to ourselves that bullying is a complex and multi-faceted issue.  Any one of the above-mentioned factors – depression, anxiety, identity development, unsupportive environments, even societal standards of beauty, strength, and masculinity – can add to the serious issues bullying creates.  What can we do?

The effects of bullying can be long-lasting and extremely harmful.  Long-term depression, self-esteem issues, and social anxiety can become crippling mental health issues.  If the past year is any indication, bullying is more than a right of passage, more than just a part of growing up.  It is a blow to self-esteem, to security, to civility.  The responsibility belongs to all of us: Report bullying if you see it.  Talk to somebody if you’re being bullied.  Stand up against it.  Stand up for each other.  None of these teens had to die.  None of them had to face that fight alone.  No kid or teenager should ever have to.

I understand that bullying is often about a cycle of abuse, that the bully is the one with low self-esteem and takes it out on those smaller, weaker than he or she.  It makes sense.  I’m not happy my bully is dead, and I would never wish it on anybody.  He died a horrific death, and it makes me sad to think that it never got better for him.  I moved on from the damage he inflicted by getting the best revenge: Living well, and living for other people.  I was lucky.  I knew that it would get better.  For anybody else struggling with bullying, with harassment, or feeling alone, please talk to somebody – your parents, teachers, counselor, friends.  Check out the list of resources included with this article. - National Hopeline Network – suicide prevention hotline - world-wide video project supporting anti-bullying efforts for LGBTQ teens and their allies. - focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth - Project by the Health Resources & Services Administration

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