By far the most tragic outcome of bullying is that it drives some kids so deep into despair that they take their own lives. Youth suicides as a result of bullying, also dubbed “bullycides,” have been going on for decades. Only recently has the public gained more awareness about them, the result of extended media coverage over a few high-profile cases.
Bullycide cases are as senseless as they are tragic. Nine-year-old Montana Lance hung himself in the bathroom of his elementary school nurse’s office in order to escape the ongoing torment from his peers, who called him gay, refused to sit by him, and physically assaulted him on the playground at school each day. Chris Joyner, a twelve-year-old boy, committed suicide in the restroom of his North Carolina middle school after being relentlessly bullied by others. Fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince was discovered hanging by her Christmas scarf in the family’s home, her body discovered by her little sister. Her crime was being an immigrant to the U.S. and briefly dating the wrong boy, which made other girls jealous, and for that she was bullied to death. Jon Carmichael, 13, hung himself in his family’s barn after years of torment for being too small. Asher Brown, a straight-A student in eighth-grade, shot himself in the head after relentless ridicule about being a Buddhist who didn’t wear designer clothes. His humiliation was topped off when classmates performed mock gay sex acts on him in gym class. In Atlanta, Georgia, a 15-year-old killed himself at school with his father’s handgun, after relentless bullying by the popular kids or “jocks” (school athletes) for being overweight. In poetry written just before his death, Brian Head wrote: “they see me as an insignificant ‘thing,’ something to be traded, mangled, and mocked. …In the shadows, I can sleep without dreams of despair and deception.” (Garbarino & deLara, 2002, p. 83)
Rates of suicide among bullied youth
Research shows that suicidal thoughts/attempts as well as actual suicides are significantly higher among regularly bullied children compared to their non-bullied peers. A 1999 Kidscape survey found that nearly half (46%) of those who were bullied in their youth contemplated suicide, compared with only 7% of those who were not bullied – an increase in suicidal rates of almost 7 times (or 700%) as a result of bullying. (Kidscape, 1999) Twenty-percent of bullied children had actually attempted suicide. Other studies have found that compared to their peers, bullied boys are 4 times more likely to be suicidal; while bullied girls are 8 times more likely to be suicidal. (Fox et al., 2003) A different study by Yale University found bullying victims up to 9-times more likely to consider suicide. (Kluger, 2012) As we pointed out in our section on the effects of bullying, social rejection registers in the brain with the same intensity as a life-death matter that impacts our very existence. Sadly, faced with ongoing peer torment that seems like it will never end, many children choose death.
The bullycide problem put in perspective
Let’s put the bullycide problem into a little perspective that may open your eyes about how serious this issue is, at least in comparison to some of the other things parents worry about. Between 2,000 and 3,000 teens in the U.S. kill themselves each and every year. During the 1998-1999 school year, for example, the CDC reports that 2,700 kids between the ages of 10 and 19 took their own lives. (Garbarino & deLara, 2002) It’s difficult to decipher how many of these are bullycides, especially since suicide statistics themselves are rife with error. As Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 84) state, “At this point, no one is really sure how many young people actually kill themselves due to the rejection and humiliation they experience at school among their peers. Social scientists are certain that the rates for suicides among school-age kids are underreported and underestimated. Often coroners do not know what to look for and many times they, along with the victims’ families, are unwilling to list ‘suicide’ on a death certificate.” In other words, this 2,700 number is surely an under-count of the teen suicides that actually take place.
While no official statistics on bullycides exist, (tracking this on a national scale is problematic … suicide victims don’t exactly check a box before death that clearly indicates their reasons), case studies and anecdotal evidence suggest the number is very high. Those who study teen suicides know there are two primary reasons for these deaths that together account for the overwhelming majority of teen suicides: A) Sexual identity crisis, or B) Bullying/peer problems. Often the two are interwoven. Sometimes suicides are driven by family abuse or other problems, but these other reasons combined account for a minority of cases in comparison to the other two.
So of those 2,700 kids who killed themselves that year (a likely undercount) you could conservatively estimate that at least half were prompted either by bullying or struggles to fit in amongst peers. This means that around 1,350 kids kill themselves as a result of peer torment each year, give or take a few hundred in either direction.
So how does this stack up against other threats children face? Let’s take the sex offender threat communities seem so worried about as an example. Every blue moon, one of the 500,000+ known sex offenders in this country will do something horrible, like murder a child. These extremely rare tragedies have sparked a widespread community response, leading to often ridiculous and ineffective laws along with an expensive response to lock them all up and throw away the key in a desperate attempt to keep children safe from that needle in the haystack among them. Cases involving a child kidnapped and murdered by someone who is a known sex offender take place perhaps once every two to five years, though they are all over the news when they happen. So at these rates, if all the known child molesters were released to the public at the statistical rates at which they pose a threat of killing children in the community, it would take them around four to five millennia – OR AROUND 5,000 YEARS – to snatch away as many young lives as are lost in a single year because of bullying. And as for the non-life threatening risk, research shows the average case of bullying tends to be more harmful than the average molestation, most of which involve sexualized affection (not aggression) towards the child.
Most bullycides never gain public attention. They occur quietly and out of the spotlight, sometimes without the parents even knowing of the torment their child was experiencing. It’s a silent but deadly threat – one which is far more dangerous to our children than many of the smoke and mirrors safety issues that capture the spotlight. These kids simply slip quietly into the darkness, exiting into death almost as invisibly as they felt in life.
Teen suicide rates have tripled since 1960 (Garbarino & deLara 2002), indicating that for whatever reasons (and there are surely many), the mental health of our nation’s youth has been steadily deteriorating. Yet as of 2002, only 20% of American schools had suicide prevention plans in place, and effective anti-bullying programs are even rarer still.