It is known that depression is the cause of most teen suicides, but what causes depression in teens? Psychologists believe that some people have a genetic tendency towards depression, while others develop depression due to external environmental factors. Bullying is one of these factors. And it's on the increase. What's more frightening is that we sometimes tell our children to expect it - and accept it - because "kids will be kids".
Bullying is abusive behaviour by one or more learners against a victim. It can be a direct physical attack like teasing, taunting, hitting, punching and stealing or it can be more subtle and malicious through gossiping, spreading rumours and intentional exclusion. The result is the victim becomes socially rejected and isolated. Physical or psychological intimidation creates an ongoing pattern of harassment and abuse - the vicious cycle of bullying.
Learners typically don't tell adults about being bullied as they feel that intervention is infrequent and inconsistent, and will only make matters worse. Also, many children feel that teachers and parents see bullying as a harmless rite of passage that is best ignored, as it will pass naturally.
Bullying needs intervention
This is not so. It takes a special type of person to intentionally cause pain to others. "Bullying is not a problem that sorts itself out naturally," says Janine Shamos.
"The line between boys being boys gets blurred when a child is intentionally targeted, when a playground slap turns to a punch," says Helen Rozkydal, a primary school educator and counsellor. The effects of bullying can last a lifetime and cause a great deal of pain and misery.
Bullied teens afraid and anxious
Children and teens who are bullied feel anxious, tense and afraid. It affects their concentration at school and results in a drop in school performance. "Bullying affects the victim's self-esteem and feelings of self-worth," says Johannesburg-based psychologist Dr Colinda Linde.
"Teens may start to withdraw socially and become depressed. Some may take weapons to school for protection or consider suicide as the only escape." Research has shown that even years after being bullied, past victims have higher levels of depression and poorer self-esteem than other adults.
Suicide caused by the effects of bullying has become such a problem in Europe and the United States that there is now a word for it -'bullycide'.
"The reality is that others took Brandon's life long before he ended his pain," says Cathy, whose son Brandon committed suicide after being repeatedly bullied, "Brandon fought a valiant battle, enduring all these things - until he lost all hope." A mother whose 16-year-old son committed suicide said: "If only he could have spoken to me, to a teacher, someone. Your pain might be over but ours will haunt us forever. We could have helped - we would have helped."
Teen suicide in SA
Teen suicide is on the increase in South Africa, with suicide accounting for 9.5% of all teen deaths. We know that children and teens are reluctant to approach adults for help, so it's up to teachers and parents to speak to them first. Bullying is a covert, underground activity in a kids-only world.
All too often, adults are not aware of what is happening under their very noses. "Parents and teachers need to ask their children how they are treated by peers and spread the word that bullying is bad for bullies," says Shamos.
Don't expect kids to work it out for themselves - and never tell a victim to fight back because they really usually are weaker and smaller. The victims are generally quieter than other children and tend to be loners.
"The victims avoid conflict at all costs and have no practice in dealing with conflict, so they panic," says Shamos. Victims sometimes are submissive even before they are attacked, which may increase their chances of victimisation. This social isolation may be more damaging than the physical bullying and these children tend to become depressed, anxious and avoidant.
Most damaging is the fact that these students worry more about the negative views other children have of them. Rozkydal observes that these children usually blame themselves for the bullying. Parents may observe changes in their children like loss of appetite, changes in sleeping habits, crying, stomach aches and not wanting to go to school.
"The only difference between a terrorist and a bully is in the organised planning or cause of the activity, and the scale of the terror," says Cathy.
Bullies headed for serious trouble
To a bullied child, the terms are interchangeable. Bullying is often a sign that these children are heading for serious trouble and are at risk for violence and law breaking. Bullies are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviour like vandalism; shoplifting and drug use into adulthood, and are four times more likely to be convicted of crimes by the age of 24. 60% of bullies have at least one criminal conviction. Bullies get what they want - but not what they need.
"Bullies are angry and have a need to be powerful and in control. Controlling others makes them feel better about themselves," says Shamos. "They need to be shown constructive ways to deal with their frustration." According to Bully Online, an anti-bullying site in the United Kingdom, the purpose of bullying is to hide inadequacy and childhood bullies often grow into adult bullies who are unable to accept responsibility for their behaviour.
Many schools have anti-bullying policies in place - find out about them and act on them - good intentions are not enough. www.respectme.co.za also offers workshops to educators, parents and learners about bullying and what can be done. It takes a lot for a child to admit to being bullied, so take allegations seriously.
"Children who are bullied, as well as the bullies themselves, experience real suffering that can interfere with their social and emotional development, as well as their school performance," says Dr Linde. "It's time for bullying to be brought into the light." Too many children have been destroyed by bullying.
In the final words of one 13-year-old boy who hanged himself due to incessant bullying: "Monday: my money was taken; Tuesday: names called; Wednesday: my uniform ripped; Thursday: my body pouring with blood; Friday: it's ended; Saturday: freedom." He was dead on Sunday.
If you or a friend are being bullied and need help, call a counselor at SADAG on 0800 21 22 23 or 0800 20 50 26 for free telephonic counseling seven days a week from 8am - 8pm.
For more information or further details:
Call Dessy or Cassey on 011 262 6396 or 082 835 7650
Janine Shamos on 082 338 9666
Roshni Seetha on 011 262 6394 or 072 270 6945.
(Sapa, February 2012)
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