A teen commits suicide after bullying. It’s a story we see in news media all too often, whether it’s the case of Phoebe Prince, a teen who killed herself after months of torment by several bullies, or that of Amanda Todd, who committed suicide after chronicling her bullying online. If a young person you know is being bullied, he or she could also be suffering from the depression or anxiety that causes suicidal thoughts and actions.
Bullying Affects Emotional Well-Being
A study published in JAMA Psychiatry and partly supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that childhood bullying has a negative effect that can last into adulthood. The 20-year study showed that bullied kids are at higher risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders than those who have not been targeted.
Interestingly, the same study found that children who bullied others had a higher risk of depression and anxiety disorders than non-bullied kids. The bullies also had a higher rate of antisocial personality disorder.
Bullying and Its Effect on Kids Perceived as Different
Bullies target anyone they see as weak, including kids who are thought to have a “different” sexual orientation. In early 2013, a gay Oregon teen hanged himself in a schoolyard after allegedly being bullied. A survey of teenagers found that those who feel they’re being targeted because they’re perceived as gay are much more likely to report feeling suicidal and depressed. The University of Washington study also found that more than 10% of 8th grade children reported being victimized because others think they are gay.
Kids with special needs are especially vulnerable to bullying and the damage it causes. For example, kids who have both autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be at a particularly high risk for bullying. Autism, which is often marked by communication difficulties and problems recognizing social cues, can lead to teasing or shunning by other children. Kids with debilitating medical conditions, such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and paralysis, are also often prime targets for bullies.
Living with a physical or mental health condition raises the risk for depression on its own, but some evidence suggests that bullying can have a greater effect on children who are “different” from their peers. Researchers have found that being bullied was among the strongest predictors of depression and anxiety in those with special needs.
Bullying and the Social Media Factor
Bullying behavior has always been an issue among children and teens, but technology can now play a significant and devastating role. In the case of Amanda Todd, the bullying began when a man with a topless photo of her distributed the picture to her friends and family online.
The effects of bullying are apparent regardless of how bullies target their victims. For instance, teens bullied online or over mobile phones are as just as likely to consider suicide as those who are bullied physically. One study found that about 27% of kids bullied online or via mobile phones have considered suicide, compared to 22% of those who were physically victimized.
Bullied Teens and Suicide
Research supports the link between bullying behavior and suicide risk. The 20-year study that linked bullying to depression and anxiety in adults also found that bullied children and bullies were at higher risk for suicidal thoughts. A Yale review of 37 studies from 13 countries found that nearly all the research suggests a connection between bullying targets and increased suicide. Although evidence suggests there is also a link between children who bully and a higher risk of suicide, suicide is more strongly connected to children who have been victimized.
Warning Signs of Depression or Anxiety
Parents, caregivers and educators have a responsibility to prevent bullying behavior. It’s essential to work with all available resources, including the school and, if necessary, law enforcement to stop the behavior and protect the bullied teen.
Even as you work to stop the bullying, you’ll need to care for the emotional needs of the teen being targeted. Only a mental health professional can diagnose a condition like depression or anxiety disorder, but you can be alert for the signs that indicate a problem.
Depression warning signs include: long-lasting sadness or irritability, sudden loss of interest in activities, change in sleeping habits, change in appetite, feeling nervous or restless and complaining about aches and pains that have no apparent cause.
Anxiety warning signs include: excessive worry about things outside their control, fear of separation from family and feeling extremely uncomfortable in social interactions.
Treating Depression or Anxiety in Bullied Kids
If your child experiences these symptoms or if a teacher or other school employee expresses a concern about his or her behavior, it’s time to seek help. Don’t wait to see if their symptoms stop after the actual bullying ends, and don’t wait to see if they’ll “grow out of it.” Ask the health team at your child’s school or your child’s pediatrician for a referral to a mental health professional.
Therapy will be the primary method of treating depression or anxiety in your teen. A therapist skilled at working with adolescents will help your loved one understand their emotions better. He or she will teach your child, in an age-appropriate way, to recognize when he or she is feeling bad and how to use practical coping strategies to work through those emotions. Depending on the treatment plan, therapy may involve one-on-one and / or group sessions.
If your teen is diagnosed with clinical depression, antidepressant medication may also be part of the treatment plan. These prescription drugs should be used with caution in young people. Properly prescribed antidepressants may reduce symptoms enough so that your teen can learn to manage the disorder. Many parents worry about the side effects of the medications, which is a very legitimate concern. While side effects are always a risk – as with any medication – the pros and cons must be carefully weighed. Untreated depression can have far worse consequences, such as impairing school performance and raising the risk for suicide. If medication is prescribed, it’s should be as an adjunct to therapy and not as the sole treatment. Your teen should be carefully monitored, as suicidal thoughts may also occur as a side effect of antidepressant medication.
Anti-anxiety drugs are usually not prescribed for children unless they don’t respond to talk therapy alone. The medications can help relieve symptoms enough for your teen to focus on the coping skills being taught in therapy.
Parents and caregivers are an important part of treatment for depression or anxiety in teens. Be an active participant in your child’s care. Ask questions, educate yourself, and always support your child as he or she learns to manage the troubling symptoms.
The price of bullying is too high. Don’t let your teen pay the price by ignoring signs of depression or anxiety. Take action to stop the bullying. Reach out to a mental health professional who can help your teen work through the trauma and get back on track to a healthy, happy life.