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Bullying: Transforming Headlines into Sustained Action

The recent tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year old young woman in Massachusetts, highlights the fact that bullying is far more than an unpleasant part of childhood and adolescence.  Bullying is a known public health problem that is linked to mental health disorders like major depression and health problems like obesity.  It is estimated that about two-thirds of students who are responsible for school shooting incidents are the victims of bullying.  And, as the death of Phoebe Prince illustrates, bullying can be a causative factor in suicide.

Whether we are parents, community members, or healthcare providers, taking steps to reduce bullying deserves our best professional and personal efforts.  Effective programs for reducing bullying have been developed and are publically available.  Books describing the extent of the problem, strategies for prevention and intervention, and outcomes of such efforts have been published over the past decade.  But, the specific patterns of bullying, and the most effective means to stop it, vary among schools or communities.  In order to stop bullying, each community or school will need to better understand its own bullying problem and then develop a solution targeted to their own environment.

The biggest danger is pretending that the problem doesn’t exist or that its impact is minimal.  Research suggests that about one in five (17%) of school age children report being bullied sometimes or often.  Nearly the same percentage of children acknowledge that they have bullied others.   There is no single profile of a bully, such as the stereotypical tough on the outside/insecure on the inside child.  Many bullies are extremely popular with their peers and, surprisingly, popular among teachers and other adults.  As with many mental health problems, the challenge is often to look closely at those things and people that are right before our eyes. 

The frequency of bullying may or may not be on the rise, and definitive research on this question is difficult to conduct.  However, it seems indisputable that the methods for bullying have grown by leaps and bounds.  The explosion of anytime, anywhere communication technologies such as texting, cell phone messaging, Twitter, and Facebook offer endless opportunities for bullying to continue past the school day.  Sadly, these forms of communication have become a readily available alternative for making personal slurs, starting rumors, and threatening physical or emotional harm. 

Bullying feeds on group dynamics, which is part of what makes it so overwhelming to the victim and so difficult to stop.  For example, when a group of people target a single person, no one person in the group has a sense of being personally responsible for the group’s actions.  Most victims of bullying do little to defend themselves from the negative threats or comments when the bully is a single person.  When the bullying occurs by a group, it is little wonder that victims typically respond with passivity.

A number of schools and communities have already taken strong steps to reduce bullying.  One such effort will occur later this spring.  Penobscot Theatre, Maine’s northeastern-most professional theatre company, an outstanding local arts organization that has previously worked to highlight such issues as youth suicide and addiction, will be presenting the one-act play “The Secret Life of Girls” at a number of middle schools in May.  Themes raised during the play, including bullying and intimidation by peers, will be discussed with students as part of the event. This series is being underwritten in part by Acadia Hospital, and we will also be providing our expertise as part of the post-play discussions at the schools.

Bullying stories that end with suicide or school shootings often prompt immediate but short lived efforts to shine a spotlight on the problem.  Yet, the long term struggle is to dispel the belief that bullying doesn’t need our attention because most people live through it.  As recent headlines remind us, this simply is not the case.  Prevention and intervention programs are available with strong evidence that they really work.  Bullying merits the same attention and energy as other public health problems (both physical and mental) that lead to unnecessary psychological and physical harm.