Bullying and suicide – not simply cause and effect

When a tragic event happens and it ends with someone dying, especially when that person takes their own life, people naturally look for someone to blame. This could not be truer than with suicide. Suicide can be really confusing for people to understand—so the easiest out is often to blame the person they think is responsible. So when a person dies by suicide, and that person was also bullied—the person who often gets blamed for their suicide is the bully.

An immense amount of research has been compiled in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publication titled The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide: What We Know and What It Means for Schools. It seems that bullying relates to suicide much like smoking relates to cancer—a person who smokes cigarettes has a higher risk of getting lung cancer, but not all people who smoke get cancer. So bullying correlates to suicide risk but it has not has not been proven to directly cause suicide. Framing bullying as the single, direct cause of suicide can be misleading and potentially harmful because, as the CDC points out, it has the possibility to:

1. Perpetuate the false notion that suicide is a natural response to being bullied which has the dangerous potential to normalize the response and thus create copycat behavior among youth.

2. Encourage sensationalized reporting, contradict the national Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide and potentially encourage copycat behavior that could lead to “suicide contagion.”

3. Focus the response on blame and punishment which misdirects the attention from getting the needed support and treatment to those who are bullied as well as those who bully others.

4. Take attention away from other important risk factors for suicidal behavior that need to be addressed (e.g. substance abuse, mental illnesses, problems coping with disease/disability, family dysfunction, etc.).

In an article that came out recently in mySA, Madalyn Mendoza wrote about a boy who had been bullied and who ended his life. This article is framed so that bullying and suicide look like a cause-and-effect issue. The very first sentence talks about a boy who “committed suicide as the result of suffering prolonged bullying.” Reporting suicide this way is not beneficial to any party involved because, as the CDC warns, it normalizes suicide to those who are bullied, it sensationalizes the news, it misdirects people from the real issues, and it ignores all the other factors that can lead to suicide. Instead of reporting bullying-related suicides this way, reporters should be more focused on the actions that can be taken for suicide prevention.

Suicide, as we all know, is a serious issue—so is bullying. This is why journalists, the government, students, parents, and everyone else should know the risks associated with bullying and suicide—and know that even if bullying does not cause suicide, it does increase the risk. That’s why people shouldn’t solely blame the bullies, but work on ways to prevent bullying and suicide by taking action against both.