What is the relationship between bullying and youth mental health issues? Who is impacted by bullying behaviors in the school community? Several studies including a recent report, The Relationship between Bullying and Suicide: What We Know and What It Means for Schools by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), provide insight about the bullying dynamic, the school climate context and student mental health. These findings are helpful for educators in guiding their student mental health and bullying prevention and intervention efforts.
Bullying occurs within a school and community context and impacts the perception and behaviors of all students. Students’ perceptions about their school experience influence their social and emotional health and development. Here are some findings about middle schools:
As middle school students’ positive perceptions of their school climate declined so did their psychological and behavioral adjustments.
Middle school climate is correlated to students’ mental health, specifically depression, which can impact students’ academics, behaviors and social-emotional development.
Middle school boys who held more positive perceptions of their school climate tended to have fewer externalizing behaviors -- aggressive, delinquent behavior.
Middle school youth with high levels of self-criticism did not show expected increases in internalizing (anxiety, stress, depression, worry, negative thinking) and externalizing problems (aggressive, delinquent behavior) when they perceived school climate in a positive light.
Bullying impacts the whole school community. It has long-lasting and serious negative effects on the mental health and overall well-being of not only the victim, but also the bully, the bully-victim (an individual who bullies and is bullied), and the bystanders. Here’s a summary of key findings from the CDC report on bullying, mental health, and suicide:
All students are impacted. All students may experiencenegative outcomes of bullying including depression, anxiety, involvement in interpersonal or sexual violence, poor social functioning and substance abuse.
Bystanders feel helpless. Any involvement with bullying behavior may significantly contribute to students’ feelings of helplessness and decreased sense of connectedness and support from responsible adults.
Both bully and victim are at-risk for suicide. Youth who report frequently bullying others and youth who report being frequently bullied are at increased risk for suicide-related behavior.
Bully-victim is at highest risk. Youth who report both bullying others and being bullied are at the highest risk for suicide-related behavior of any group that reports involvement with bullying.
What we don’t know about bullying and suicide. We don’t know if bullying is a direct cause of suicide-related behavior. The CDC report says that it is “correct to say that involvement in bullying, along with other risk factors, increases the chance that a young person will engage in suicide-related behaviors” (CDC, p 3.)
What we do know about bullying and suicide. Suicide-related behavior is complicated and rarely the result of a single cause of trauma or stress. Individuals who engage in suicide-related behavior often experience overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Youth who are at increased risk for suicide-related behavior are dealing with a complex interaction of multiple relationships (peer, family, or romantic), mental health, and school stressors. Suicide-related behavior and bullying behavior are closely related. Youth who report any involvement with bullying are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related behavior than youth who do not report any involvement with bullying behavior. That being said, we do know that most kids who are involved in bullying do NOT engage in suicide-related behavior. We know enough about the relationship between bullying and suicide-related behavior to recommend focusing on prevention efforts.
For more information on what schools can do click here.
Suicide-related behaviors include:
Suicide: Death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with any intent to die.
Suicide attempt: A non-fatal self-directed potentially injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior. A suicide attempt may or may not result in injury.
Suicidal ideation: Thinking about, considering, or planning for suicide.
(CDC, n.d., p.3)
Lucy A. Vezzuto, Ph.D.
L.A. Vezzuto, Ph.D. & Associates
Irvine, CA 92602
Brand, S., Felner, R., Shim, M., Seitsinger, A., & Dumas, T. (2003). Middle school improvement and reform: development and validation of a school-level assessment of climate, cultural pluralism, and school safety. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95 (3), 570-588.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention. (n.d.) The relationship between bullying and suicide: what we know and what it means for schools. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/bullying-suicide-translation-final-a.pdf.
Kuperminic, G. P., Leadbeater, B. J., Emmons, C., & Blatt, S. J. (1997). Perceived school climate and difficulties in the social adjustment of middle school students. Applied Developmental Science, 1, 76-88.
Kuperminic, G. P., Leadbeater, B. J., & Blatt, S. J. (2001). School social climate and individual differences in vulnerability to psychopathology among middle school students. Journal of School Psychology, 39, (2), 141-159.
Way, N., Reddy, R., & Rhodes, J. (2007). Students’ perceptions of school climate during the middle school years: Associations with trajectories of psychological and behavioral adjustment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 40(3), 194-213.