The word “bully” might conjure images of a 9-year-old punk shaking down a 7-year-old for lunch money. But teenagers experience bullying, too, and research shows it can be a red flag for depression and suicidal behavior — whether the teen is the bully or the victim.
“If you are vulnerable and being bullied, it can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Madelyn S. Gould, a professor of psychiatry and public health at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute who has studied bullying.
That does not mean bullying causes suicide, but it is an associated factor. Six teenagers were charged recently in South Hadley, Mass., in the case of Phoebe Prince, who killed herself after she complained of being tormented by kids in her high school.
Teenager Alexis Pilkington killed herself in March in West Islip, N.Y., and nasty comments about her were posted online even after her death. But Alexis’ father told a local newspaper, Newsday, that the harassment “was not the major or even a minor factor” in the suicide.
Ann Haas, director of prevention projects at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, cautioned against thinking in terms of “cause and effect” when it comes to bullying and suicide.
“The key risk factor for suicide in youth is unrecognized, untreated mental disorders, particularly depression,” Haas said.
A study of 2,342 high school students published in 2007 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed “a clear association” among bullying, depression, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, according to Gould, one of the authors.
Among students who said they were frequently bullied in school, nearly 30 percent reported depression and 11 percent reported serious thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts. Among those who frequently bullied others, almost 19 percent reported experiencing depression and about 8 percent reported suicidal thoughts or attempts.
In contrast, only 7 percent of teenagers who said they were never bullied reported depression, and 3 percent reported suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts.
Overall, the study found about 9 percent of high school students said they were frequently bullied, and 13 percent said they frequently bullied others. These rates were consistent with other studies, the researchers said.
Insulting or humiliating someone on Facebook, by text or by e-mail can be just as devastating as physical confrontations or pranks.
“In the 21st century electronic age, you can be one step removed from what you’re doing,” Alec L. Miller, an adolescent psychologist, said. Miller said he believes trash talk on television, such as the critiques on “American Idol” and in-your-face insults on reality shows, has desensitized Americans to the harm words can inflict.
“There’s a level of mean-spiritedness” that has come to be accepted, he said.
Gould said a new study awaiting publication followed adults who reported being bullied in high school to see if it had any lasting impact.
The good news: Most adults who were bullied in high school “were not suicidal, not depressed and not at risk for suicide,” she said.
“There is life after high school,” Haas said, “but that can take many years for all of us to appreciate.”