Bully and their Victims Both at High Risk for Suicidal Thoughts

Headline-making tragedies like the suicide of Massachusetts teen Phoebe Prince in 2010 have established the connection between being bullied and self-destruction. What you might not know is that bullies themselves are at risk for suicidal behaviors or thoughts—and those who have been both bullies and bullied are at the highest risk of all.

So found a metastudy led by Melissa Holt, a School of Education assistant professor of counseling psychology. Published recently online in the journal Pediatrics, the research combed 47 studies, done between 1990 and 2013 and involving more than a half million subjects, to compare bullying participants with youths who have never pushed others around or been pushed around. The association between bullying involvement and suicidal thoughts or actions wasn’t stronger for either girls or boys, the metastudy found.

Holt’s interest in bullying was fostered by the two years she spent as a behavioral scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) prior to joining the BU faculty four years ago. Her personal circumstances—she’s the mother of three—reinforce her academic passion to study the topic, she says.

BU Today: What is more likely to lead to suicide or suicidal thoughts—being a bully, being bullied, or being both?

Holt: The kids most likely to report suicidal thoughts or behaviors are the kids who both perpetrate, and are targeted by, bullying behaviors—“bully-victims.” That wasn’t surprising, as we know from other research that those are the kids at greatest risk for psychological distress in general. The kids victimized by bullying were slightly more likely than kids who perpetrate bullying to engage in suicidal behaviors or have suicidal thoughts.

For the kids who were bully-victims, suicidal thoughts or behavior were about four times more likely than for the kids who were uninvolved in bullying. For the victims, it would be about two times more likely for suicidal thoughts and about three times more likely for suicidal behaviors. For kids who engaged in bullying perpetration, it would be about two times more likely for suicidal thoughts and almost three times more likely for suicidal behaviors. So it’s pretty significant.

What percentage of kids overall are involved in bullying? How big a problem is this?

In the United States, about 30 percent of kids are involved in bullying in some capacity. If you think about kids not very frequently involved, it’s a lot of kids. But if we think about kids experiencing it more frequently, it’s about 30 percent.

The difficulty, I take it, in researching this was defining what counts as bullying versus just aggression.

Absolutely. It’s very debated in the field. We followed the CDC definition on bullying, which is essentially repeated aggressive behavior that occurs over time, in this case between two peers. It would have some intention of harming the person, either physically or emotionally. Bullying has got to have that repeated nature to it, the one caveat being that if you had reason to believe that the aggression could happen again, that could qualify as bullying.

A power imbalance is one of the big keys to bullying. It doesn’t have to be physical. It could be that someone is more popular than you or more athletic. A fight between two friends who are equal in power on a school playground wouldn’t meet the criteria.

Is physical or emotional bullying, online or off, the stronger predictor of suicide or suicidal thoughts?

We couldn’t look at that. That’s something we think is important to look at in the future. There weren’t enough studies that just assessed relational bullying.

Lots of people are bullied and don’t commit or attempt suicide. Why do some victims take that step?

This article does not say that bullying by itself causes suicide. There’s a host of other factors—for example, a history of depression—in addition to being targeted. 

I think most readers could understand why a victim of repeated bullying would contemplate suicide. But why would a bully?

Something that often gets overlooked are the mental health needs of the kids who engage in perpetrating. Those youths, as well as victims and bully-victims, are more likely than uninvolved youths to experience other forms of victimization. For example, they’re more likely to experience child maltreatment or dating violence. 

Is enough being done now—in schools, by parents, by researchers—to address this problem? Or are we falling down?

In recent years, there’s certainly been a lot more attention to addressing bullying and the mental health effects or educational effects, but I think educators and mental health professionals having this knowledge—that there is this increased likelihood of suicide—on their radar would help. It’s surprising probably to some people that perpetrators experience more suicide. If you’re an educator or school guidance counselor, it’s important to address the perpetrators’ behaviors, but also to inquire about their mental health status and whether they’re experiencing suicidal thoughts—to not just think of them as acting out.

In Massachusetts, it’s mandated that there be bullying prevention programs in schools. We know from research that the best programs are whole-school approach programs, targeting everyone in the school, regardless of bullying environment. For example, if you could encourage all kids to become active bystanders, that could help reduce bullying.

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