Is there a direct link between bullying and suicide?

Stop the Bullying Special Report
Updated: Feb. 28, 2019 at 6:57 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention sponsors a walk called, “Out of the Darkness," with the goal being to shed the light on a suicide, which is often not discussed. According to the Alabama Chair of AFCP Dr. Marrissa Grayson, it’s also under reported.

Dr. Grayson says her heart breaks for the families of these young children who took their own lives. There is no making sense of it, but Dr. Grayson explains some of the research she’s learned.

“We know that the act of suicide tends to be impulsive, but the suicide ideation is not and what leads up to a suicide may not be impulsive,” she says.

Can bullying cause a child to take their own lives?

“This act of bullying can be one of the factors that might contribute to why someone would take their own lives, but of middle school and high school kids almost 20 percent say that they have been bullied at some time and not all taken their lives," Dr. Grayson said. “We know that causation is not necessarily there.”

That means there is no direct link between bullying and suicide right now, according to the experts. Dr. Grayson goes onto say there has to be an underlying issue such as depression.

“It may be a mental health issue and it may be that there are other school stresses, and maybe those are becoming more apparent that are resulting in suicidal ideation or suicidal behavior - not just for the person who is being bullied, but also those who witness bullying and those who are doing the bullying,” she said.

“In general, 90 percent of people who die by suicide had a diagnosable and treatable mental illness at the time they lost their lives and that’s why it is complex. I am not saying that bullying is not a factor as far as this risk of suicide, it’s just it’s not the only explanation.”

On the point of the so-called bully or person showing aggression, Grayson says children who are most likely at risk of suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior are not just those have been bullied, but are actually doing that bullying.

Children may not tell parents there are on the edge or thinking about harming themselves. Dr. Grayson says for that reason alerting teachers is a big part of spotting trouble.

“I know we ask a lot of our educators but our educators are with the children for the longest periods of time and can notice some of those subtle changes," Dr. Grayson said. “We helped get the Jason Flatt Act passed in Alabama. It requires that all K through 12 employees at school that interact with children have to go through two hours of suicide prevention.”

Dr. Grayson recommends teachers keep a log of what they notice about their students, changes in behavior, homework.

“These changes that are being seen so much of it is subtle, but might be helping explain, what else is happening behind the bullying," she said. "The risk of just accepting the idea of bullying causes suicide is that there are other things that happen that can be ignored.”

Dr. Grayson says there are physical and noticeable indications that show the effects of depression on the brain. She says it’s important to recognize mental health conditions are actual physical health conditions.

“So, two weeks of being depressed, your brain looks very different," she said.

For that reason, people are thinking about suicide,

“They are no longer in a capacity to reason in the same way as someone who is dealing, not dealing with that underlying health conditions,” Dr. Grayson says.

But there is hope. Grayson says people who take their lives by suicide don’t want to die as much as they just don’t know what else they can do. That’s why she says it’s important to make sure resources are readily available.

“Often times we’ll hear kids say you just wouldn’t understand to an adult. Times are different when we were talking about issues of cyberbullying," Dr. Grayson said. "So letting them know what resources are available. no matter who we are talking to. We share the national suicide prevention hotline - 800-273-talk. There is also a texting option that we like to share with young kids and sometimes they don’t want to call which is 741-741. Other high-risk populations have their own their own phone numbers.”

This is where coming out of the darkness comes into play, Dr. Grayson says if someone is exhibiting warning signs of profound sadness, hopelessness and depression that are accompanied by a changes in behavior, doing things out of the ordinary, it’s important to talk about it.

“If you ask someone if they have thought about suicide you are not putting the thought in their head. Instead you are figuring out if they have contemplating it and if they have a plan right in which the answer is if they say they have thought about it, those are the next steps," Dr. Grayson said. "Asking do you have a plan trying to figure out if this is an eminent plan and then being ready to take action. Opening up conversations is something we can really do.”

Still, Dr. Grayson says she gets resistance to talking about suicide in schools

“To tell someone who has just lost a child to suicide who has been bullied that we are already doing enough is just completely unfair," she said. “It’s a question partly of changing the way we talk about these issues and so in a lot of schools we try to go in and talk about suicide prevention and we get told the parents don’t want us to talk about this. We don’t want to be talking about these issues. So some of this is the stigma associated with mental health and this fear of if we talk about it, it could happen here.”

On top of that, Dr. Grayson says there is the matter of what to do once you discover someone does want to do harm themselves and needs to get help. A number of nonprofits and Children’s of Alabama have some resources available, but Dr. Grayson says in general there’s the problem of access.

“Mental health access in Alabama compared to most states is really poor as far as the amount of money, centers that are available, programs, etc.," she said. "We’re not doing enough.”

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