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Bullying and Suicide: What’s the Connection?

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In the past decade, headlines reporting the tragic stories of a young person’s suicide death linked in some way to bullying have become regrettably common. There is so much pain and suffering associated with each of these events, affecting individuals, families, communities and our society as a whole. There is an increasing national outcry to “do something” about the problem of bullying and suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other violence prevention partners are conducting research to learn more about the relationship between these two serious public health problems with the goal of using what we have learned to save lives and prevent future suffering. One example of this work is in September 2010, the CDC brought together a panel of experts who presented research focusing on this complex relationship between youth involvement in bullying (youth who bully, youth who are bullied, and those who bully and are bullied) and suicide-related behaviors (attempts, deaths, and risk factors associated with suicide such as depression). These experts published their results in a recently released special issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. The eight articles included in the special issue help to clarify the complicated issues surrounding bullying and suicide among youth.

This is what we DON’T know about bullying and suicide:

  • We don’t know if bullying directly causes suicide. We know that most kids who are involved in bullying do NOT engage in suicide-related behavior.  It is correct to say that involvement in bullying, along with other risk factors, can increase the chance that a young person will engage in suicide-related behaviors.

Here is what we DO know:

  • We know that bullying behavior and suicide-related behavior are related. This means youth who report any involvement with bullying behavior are more likely to report suicide-related behavior than youth who do not report any involvement with bullying behavior.
  • Discussing bullying as directly caused by or as the only cause of suicide is not helpful and is potentially harmful because…
    1. It encourages sensationalized reporting, contradicts the Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide and potentially encouraging copycat behavior.
    2. It focuses on blaming and punishing and does not give critical attention to the necessary support and treatment youth who are involved with bullying need.
    3. It takes attention away from other important risk factors for suicidal behavior that need to be addressed (e.g., mental illnesses, coping with disease/disability, family dysfunction, etc.).
    4. It perpetuates the false notion that suicide is a natural response to being bullied, which has the dangerous potential to normalize the response and thus create “suicide contagion” among youth.

So what can we do with this information? There are public health strategies that can be applied to the prevention of bullying and suicide. For example, increasing connectedness among youth and parents, other adults, and teachers may decrease bullying and suicide behaviors.

In 2012, the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention worked with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center to conduct a webinar on bullying and suicide. For more information, tools and resources, please visit Stopbullying.gov’s Who Is At Risk section and Media Guidelines for Bullying Prevention.