To prevent youth suicide, we must address more than bullying
Last week, another story of a young person who died by suicide made headlines. As with the majority of articles covering youth suicides over the last decade, the story heavily focused on the role bullying may have played in precipitating the young girl’s death. While bullying could certainly have been a factor in this case (as an outside observer lacking all the facts, I can’t comment on this specific case), the same cannot be said about many incidents of youth suicide. Schools’ bullying prevention efforts are critically important. However, the continued narrative that youth suicide is caused by bullying may divert schools’ focus from solutions that would target more prevalent risk factors for suicide.
From 2007 to 2014, rates of deaths due to suicide among children ages 10 to 14 more than doubled, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is consistent with a more recent study of children’s hospital admissions of children ages 5 to 17 from 2008 to 2015, which found a similar increase. However, over the same time period, rates of bullying for youth ages 12 to 18 significantly declined, from 32 percent in 2007 reporting having been bullied, to 21 percent in 2015. While comparing these two data trends cannot negate a connection between bullying and suicide—and indeed recent data show that youth who have been bullied report higher rates of suicidal ideation—it does suggest that many cases of youth suicide are not a result of bullying.
An analysis of data for youth ages 11 to 15 from the National Violent Death Reporting System, which collects information from 18 states about all reported suicides including precipitating circumstances, found that in 2003 through 2014, only around 9 percent of cases specifically indicated that bullying was a factor leading to the suicide. The same number of cases reported school disciplinary problems (e.g., being suspended from school). However, over half the cases (56 percent) listed relationship issues, primarily with family or intimate dating partners, as a precipitating factor, and a similar percentage (52 percent) of youth were reported to have had mental health problems. The majority of youth suicides (60 percent) involved multiple precipitating factors.
We cannot prevent all incidents of youth suicide by only focusing on bullying. Instead, we must target the many potential risk factors involved. For many schools, this might seem like a daunting task considering the variety of potential issues involved– from bullying to school discipline, to mental and physical health supports, to family engagement. These issues, however, are interconnected.
By approaching suicide prevention holistically—the whole child—instead of focusing solely on a single risk factor such as bullying, we may be better able to stem the tide of youth suicide. Schools can help promote positive relationships between and among students and teachers. They can recognize the contribution of physical wellness to mental wellness. And, they can actively engage families with the school community. In doing so, schools will target many suicide risk factors at once and, by extension, create healthy, safe, nurturing environments where youth suicides may be less likely.
This blog was developed with support from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (grant 74616). The views reflected in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Site at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).