Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Just Kids Being Kids? Links Between Bullying and Suicide

We can't say, empirically, that bullying causes suicide.

I often have several stories of suicide running through my head. I read about suicide and suicide prevention daily and write about it at least once a week, so it's ever-present. I don't often get dragged down by these stories; I keep them in my head to stay focused and remind myself why I do the work of suicide prevention. But, lately, I have been replaying in my head the stories of young adolescents who have died by suicide, trying to understand what might have been done differently to prevent their deaths.

One story is that of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, whose mother was recently featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Carl was 11 years old when he ended his life in Springfield, Massachusetts, after he was bullied daily in school with anti-gay comments. Carl did not identify as gay, so being gay in and of itself was not what put him at risk for suicide. But, even though he did not identify as gay, he came to share the shame and isolation gay youth report. Others have said that they have tried to imagine the depths of hopelessness about his situation that Carl had felt that would have driven him to this decision.

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We can't say, empirically, that bullying causes suicide. That fact is what has made me hesitant to write about bullying and suicide prevention. But, Carl's story is one that compels me to do something, to say something.

Another is the story of Ryan Patrick Halligan, who was bullied in person by schoolmates for years and online by the same youth for months before he ended his life at 13 years old.

Ryan's father John writes about bullying: "We had the conventional adult belief that this was just kids being kids, a part of growing up ... that encountering mean kids in middle school was just inevitable."

Mr. Halligan writes so eloquently about the cause of his son's death that I've chosen to include a piece of what he writes on his website here: "I want to be very clear. I don't blame Ryan's suicide on one single person or one single event. In the end, Ryan was suffering from depression. This is a form of mental illness that is brought on by biological and/or environmental factors. In Ryan's case, I feel it was the ‘pile on effect' of the environmental issues mentioned above that stemmed from his middle school life."

Just the same, Mr. Halligan writes, "we have no doubt that bullying and cyber bullying were significant environmental factors that triggered Ryan's depression."

How can these stories serve as a springboard for us, to move us forward as we try to tease out the environmental and psychological factors that influence some people to think about suicide?

Copyright 2009 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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