By Israel “Izzy” Kalman
An important document called the Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention has recently been published, and Be Strong is rightfully endorsing it. It was produced by collaboration between the National Association of School Psychologists (my own primary professional affiliation), the American School Counselor Association, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and The Trevor Project. The latter describes itself as “the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24.”
As the title of this manual suggests, the creators hope for it to be adopted by all school districts. While suicide has always been with us, it has been a dramatically growing problem in the past two decades. The incidence of suicide has surged most substantially among young girls. Among LGBTQ youth, the suicide rate has always been several times higher than among the general population. It is essential that effective steps be taken to prevent this heart-rending tragedy. This new document recognizes the central role that schools can play in reducing suicide and minimizing collateral damage when it does occur.
Be Strong is a national nonprofit, dedicated to the prevention of both suicide and bullying. The Model Policy document states that the relationship between bullying and suicide is not totally clear, but it does treat bullying as a significant factor in many cases of self-harm.
The Model Policy emphasizes the presence of serious mental illness in the great majority of suicide cases. It can be difficult for mental health clinicians to imagine that someone would take their own life without being mentally ill; bullying is bad, they think, but it can’t be that devastating for a normal person. In fact, clinicians may see suicide as a definite symptom of mental illness, causing them to engage in circular reasoning: suicide is caused by mental illness, so when a patient commits suicide, it is proof that they were mentally ill.
Few professionals, though, have focused intensively on helping targets of bullying. Because I began working in schools four decades ago, after earning a masters degree in clinical psychology, and treated school as a setting for helping individuals with their social and emotional problems, it quickly became clear to me that the most common complaint of students was being bullied by other kids. Helping those affected by bullying thus became a major focus of my professional work.
A satisfying social life is essential for happiness and mental health. There are few things that can cause as much misery as being constantly abused and disrespected by one’s peers. For some students, bullying is totally devastating, not only to themselves, but to their entire family. When a child suffers, everyone that loves that child suffers as well. And when the suffering child sees their loved ones suffering because of them, it amplifies their misery. They feel responsible for causing pain to others, so their despair deepens.
Despite the devastation caused by bullying, the dynamics behind it are quite simple. I like to describe it as an illusion: You pick on me, for example, by calling me idiot, fatso, ugly, four eyes, etc., or by giving me a shove when you pass me in the hallway. I get upset because I don’t like being picked on and want you to stop. However, by getting upset, I give you power over me. All living creatures are biologically programmed to enjoy power. So you are likely to pick on me again, to experience the power over me. I get upset again, intending to stop you from picking on me, not realizing that every time I get upset, I am encouraging you to pick on me again. Meanwhile, it seems to me, that you are picking on me because I am overweight or stupid or ugly, or because you hate me for some reason. What I can’t see is that the reason you continue picking on me is because I am getting upset and trying to stop you. This simple illusion is enough to destroy someone’s ability to enjoy life – even to drive them to consider causing physical harm to others and to one’s self.
Often, the bullying is exacerbated when the target informs the school. The school authorities proceed to carry out investigations of the alleged aggressors, who then become angry with the target, seek revenge, and label them a snitch. The target’s despair deepens further, as their expectation that the school would solve the problem backfires.
Possessing a mental illness increases people’s chances of becoming targets of bullying for two obvious reasons. One is that their behavior is more likely to stand out and therefore serve as fodder for ridicule by their peers. Secondly, they are more likely to get upset than the average person.
On the other hand, a person can be emotionally healthy but fall into the trap of getting upset by an act of abuse, which can initiate a never-ending cycle of abuse that destroys their wellbeing and actually makes them feel mentally ill. I have seen many such clients throughout my career. Teaching them to see through the illusion and stop getting upset is enough to restore their previous state of mental health.
It is reassuring to read an article about a prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Tyler Black, Medical Director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Emergency Department at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. He wants society to do away with the common misconception “that suicide behavior or thinking is only for people with mental illness.”
Undoubtedly, many parents will be grateful to have the stigma of mental illness removed from their suicidal children, as they are perfectly aware that their children were emotionally healthy before they began suffering from bullying.
In its “Purpose” statement, the Model Policy document “recognizes that physical, behavioral, and emotional health is an integral component of a student’s educational outcomes.” It also lists protective factors for suicide, including, “receiving effective mental health care,” “positive connections to family, peers…” and “the skills and ability to solve problems.”
And this is where Be Strong’s role is so important. The unfortunate truth is that most mental health professionals are not proficient at providing those they treat with “the skills and ability to solve problems” of bullying. Many of those affected by bullying who committed suicide or violence against others were, in fact, referred to counselors and therapists – either in or outside the school – yet they continued to be bullied. Had the professionals known how to reliably help such children, the tragic outcome for many of them would have been prevented.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work with the Be Strong staff, first with my student Brooks Gibbs, when he was still involved with the organization, and then with psychology professor Dr. Jennifer Peluso and psychology graduate student Percival Longworth, to produce the Be Strong Resilience Program, based on my system for teaching students and staff how to deal with bullying and to improve relationships in the school and home. The program also has input on cyberbullying from renowned expert Professor Sameer Hinduja.
We can be confident that schools that offer this simple, yet powerful program to their students will prevent suicides and eliminate much of the routine suffering resulting from bullying and relationship problems. Research studies are currently underway on the program. We hope that the results will confirm our expectations, and thereby open a floodgate of schools desperately seeking an inexpensive but effective approach for reducing bullying and improving the social lives and mental health of their students.
Click here to explore the Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention, a collaborative effort of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, and The Trevor Project.
Israel Kalman, MS, Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an internationally recognized expert on bullying prevention and is lead author of the Be Strong Resilience Program.