Last Friday, Sam Denham, a 13-year-old boy from Taylor Mill, Kentucky, shot and killed himself. The eighth grader had been bullied at school for many years, and despite attempts by the family and the school to address the problem, it continued. The despair reached a level that he could no longer tolerate. This young man’s family is talking about it and reaching out to the press, bringing local attention to this difficult issue. While there is no clear indication that Denham suffered from mental illness, some of the other most common risk factors for youth suicide were present. One of them is obvious – there were firearms in the home. At least one other risk factor was present – low self-esteem, at least partially a result of bullying.
Bullying has made national headlines in recent years. This has led to a number of initiatives aimed at providing help and resources to kids who are bullied. Victims are targeted for any number of reasons, including appearance, socio-economic status, race, sexual orientation, or emotional reactivity. At times it can stem from jealousy on the part of the bully. Tactics include physical aggression, threats, verbal assaults, social isolation, and humiliation. Aggressors can be subtle and difficult to identify. They are sometimes adept at deceiving adults about their behavior. Sometimes they do not even perceive themselves as being bullies. Yet they create a culture where certain behaviors become tolerated and accepted. Bystanders are reluctant to speak up. And the results can clearly be devastating. In addition to an increased risk of violence toward self or others, people who are bullied often face academic problems, physical health problems, and mood disorders (depression, anxiety.)
With social networks and texting, it makes it easier for groups to engage in “cyber bullying,” and coordinating abuse of targeted individuals. Social networking sites as arenas for bullying behavior are concerning, as they often go unmonitored and unchecked. This is a problem that has caught our community’s attention, and schools, parents, and mental health professionals are looking for ways to address it. Some people, including Covington Commissioner Shawn Masters, favor anti-bullying legislation. Others assert that this type of legislation only creates more unfunded mandates for school systems, and is more about hype than substantive solutions to the problem.
So what can be done? Schools, parents, and students can play a role in reducing the risk for bullying-related problems including suicide. The American Association of Suicidology lists several protective factors. They are family and school connectedness, reduced access to firearms, safe schools, academic achievement, and self-esteem. Everyone who deals with children has opportunities to speak a word of encouragement or give help or advice. Many can do a better job of reaching out to those who are struggling socially or seem to be depressed. In schools, the “squeaky wheel” often gets teachers’ attention, and some classrooms have a lot of those. The quiet kids who are struggling can easily slip under the radar. Letting them know that they matter too is very important. Some kind words or an expression of caring concern can make a difference for these kids. Some kids will do well to become involved in extra-curricular activities, and these may or may not include competitive sports. Adults can find ways to acknowledge and reward acts of kindness, and create opportunities for practicing community service. They can empower kids to succeed in these positive ways, rather than allowing them to sink into helplessness. When kids see that there are other ways to be socially engaged and powerful (not at others’ expense,) this can build self-efficacy and willingness to speak up for themselves and others who are bullied.