Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

The truth about bullying and suicide

Why suicide is never simple

Last week, Slate's Emily Bazelon published an investigative piece on the suicide of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts teenager whose death pushed teen suicide prevention into the media spotlight and spearheaded legislative action against bullying.

Bazelon uses a new lens to look at the Prince case, reframing what has become conventional wisdom. The popular press has fixed in place the notion that Prince was driven to suicide after being harassed by classmates. I wrote about how the Prince case may have made cyber-bullying, the insidious use of online media to taunt teens, unacceptable. Knowing that research doesn't show that bullying causes suicide, I also wrote about how bullying increases suicide risk. But Bazelon asks: What if bullies didn't push Phoebe Prince to suicide?

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The bullying-suicide link is popular because bullying is much easier to talk about than suicide. It's universal - just about everyone knows someone or was someone who was bullied or was a bully. Talking about bullying can open the door to talking about suicide. It's been "good" to have Prince's suicide linked to bullying, because it's brought more attention to suicide prevention than if Prince were, say, a teen with chronic mental illness.

But, Bazelon writes, it turns out that "the whole story is a lot more complicated than anyone has publicly allowed for. The events that led to Phoebe's death show how hard it is for kids, parents, and schools to cope with bullying, especially when the victim is psychologically vulnerable."

Prince had been cutting, self-injuring, for some time before she moved to Massachusetts, before the bullying started at her school in South Hadley. Prince was a young woman at risk when she walked into her new school. Cutting is a way of externalizing internal pain. It's also a risk factor for suicide.

Bazelon's in-depth piece is compelling reading that examines Phoebe Prince as an individual, sometimes in unflattering ways. It also explains Prince's interpersonal conflicts at school, the responses of both teens and adults in the school, the legal case, and the opportunities missed by the school to intervene earlier. Bazelon looks at the big picture and sees the complexity, poses questions that might not have easy answers, and stirs controversy. I'm so glad.

As much as it's been beneficial to have Prince's story in the media as a way of raising awareness about teen suicide prevention, as much as it's been a sea change to consider prosecuting children for bullying other children, and as much as linking bullying to suicide helps both kids who are bullied and kids who are suicidal, the simplification - that bullying was the cause of Phoebe Prince's death - has been a problem for suicide prevention. Suicide as an outcome is never simple. I'm glad that Bazelon has exposed that truth.

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, M.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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