A study released by the Columbia University School of Health in New York suggests that when comedian Robin Williams took his life in 2014, he may have spawned a rash of copycat suicides. This year’s Grammy Awards ceremony featured a suicide prevention performance, and the media has been saturated lately with reports about the suicide of actress Rose McGowan’s former manager Jill Messick.
Amid all these discussions of suicide is a haunting reminder that we live in a society where 10-year-olds like Ashawnty Daniels of Colorado also take their own lives because of bullying. Ashawnty hung herself in her closet, allegedly, because she was bullied after an embarrassing video of her fighting another girl made it to social media. This case hits all too close to home. I recall the heartbreak I felt when I watched my niece suffer after a similar video of her defending herself against a bully was shared on social media last year.
As a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner who cares for children and adolescents, I often see children who are suffering from depression and anxiety. They frequently cite bullying as a stressor and dread going to school. They report suicidal thoughts and self-injurious behaviors.
During a study of youths referred for psychiatric services associated with suicidal thoughts, almost half of them said they were bullied.
The term bullycide was coined in 2001 by authors Tim Field and Neil Marr when they wrote “Bullycide: Death at Playtime,” a book on child suicide caused by bullying. Youth who are bullied — as well as youth who bully — are at increased risk for suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 34 and the third leading cause of death for kids ages 10 to 14.
Parents, teachers and adult bystanders cannot afford to passively watch youth torment one another to death. Although it is difficult to directly link bullying to suicide, with suicide rates increasing steadily since 1999, we have an opportunity to curtail one of the risk factors by implementing evidence-based, anti-bullying approaches, policies and interventions in schools. Research suggests using a holistic approach that uses multiple interventions that focus on both the bully and the victim. System wide approaches like the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program are most effective.
Often adults and teachers see bullying but don’t intervene.
In a Burger King social experiment, only 12 percent of adults intervened for a teen who was being bullied, while 95 percent chose to complain about their food.
I have tried desperately to understand how someone could encourage another to “go kill themselves” without remorse, or how anyone could stand by silently while someone is being ridiculed. I recently came across a social media post from a friend whose son died from suicide. Her words exemplified pain I pray I never know. Jacqueline Brown is a principal of an early childhood center located in a public school district in the suburbs of Chicago. She is the mother of three adult children, one of which lost his life to suicide at age 25. She participates in a variety of causes related to suicide prevention and early childhood education, her two passions. With her permission, I am sharing her innermost thoughts in the hope that it might create new dialogue about the suffering caused by suicide.
Here is what Jacqueline Brown recently posted to her Facebook account a little over three years after the suicide of her son Keith Brown:
My Thoughts For Today: The Word That I Hate The Most
Prior to September 13, 2014, at 5:00 pm, I can say that I really did not harbor hatred for anything or anyone. I had great disdain for certain foods, events and, shamefully, certain people, but not hatred. But since that day and time, I do feel hatred for one word. That word is suicide. Suicide has placed my entire family’s feelings, thoughts, and emotions into a snow globe. When it is still, it is beautiful and calm. But when it is shaken, pieces fly everywhere. Those pieces represent our feelings, thoughts, and emotions. And the source of the shaking, is life. Sometimes life brings about just a slight shifting of feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Other times that snow globe or life gets turned all the way upside down and causes total displacement. Many times you never know the trigger.
Suicide causes those left on Earth, the survivors, to have unresolved feelings of guilt. And no matter how much you try to rationalize, and no matter how much those that love and support you tell you it’s not your fault, that guilt never goes away. You learn to work through it and function, but it never goes away. This is especially true if you are the mother of a child who lost his life to suicide. Your predominate thoughts are: I gave birth to this child. How did I not know the extent of his pain? Mothers are supposed to know!! There is no real comfort to alleviate the pain of these thoughts. The pain is so intense that it causes us to go into a fetal position and cry until you cannot produce anymore tears. And yes, even more than three years later, you still have these moments and sometimes days.
Suicide still carries so much stigma. The perception is that people “commit” suicide. But the truth is, people “die from” suicide. It takes place because the victim is experiencing such intense pain that, in their mind, there is no other way out. This is truly what they believe in that moment. I have learned this through losing my KB to suicide. He was experiencing an insurmountable amount of pain. And he did not want to impose that on anyone else. He felt that it was the only way out. People think that those who die from suicide are selfish and cowards. When, in fact, it is just the opposite.
I post these very personal feelings and thoughts to offer enlightenment and hopefully provide support to others who may be on this or similar journeys. Those of you who knew KB also know that this is what he would have wanted: to help. Yes, I HATE suicide with a passion. But I have decided to use that passion to educate. I am still working on what this will look like long term in my life. But in the meantime, I encourage all, especially my educator friends, to raise awareness and provide prevention in whatever capacity we are able.#stopsuicide
Let this remind us all of why we must stand up against bullies and remove the stigma around treating depression and other mental illnesses that cause suicide.
Dr. Dawn Bounds is a practitioner-researcher and Assistant Professor in Community, Systems, & Mental Health Nursing at Rush University Medical Center. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.