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Recognizing the warning signs for teen bullying, suicide

School officials need to do more to make parents aware of the stress that today’s teens and tweens face.

Mainstream media outlets have coined a new term to describe the rash of student suicides committed in the wake of persistent school bullying and harassment: “bullycides.”

The issue has spawned significant new research to determine whether the phenomenon is really new, or simply being reported more often. Either way, school officials need to do more to make parents aware of the stress that today’s teens and tweens face.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 12 percent of all deaths among youth and young adults in the U.S. result from suicides.

Nearly 20 percent of high school students surveyed by the CDC report being bullied on school property during the previous 12 months; 5 percent report not going to school on a least one day during the past 30 days as a result of safety concerns.

Perhaps even more telling, 26.1 percent of the CDC survey respondents felt so sad or hopeless for a two-week period or more that they stopped doing their usual activities—a clear sign of teenage depression.

Nationwide, 13.8 percent of students reported they had seriously considered committing suicide. The numbers are particularly bleak for female students, 17.4 percent of whom reported suicidal tendencies.

Another recent CDC study might point to some possible causes. According to the CDC, adverse childhood experiences (called ACEs) are common across racial/ethnic groups and states.

For example, 22 percent of adult women and 16.7 percent of adult men in the study reported having grown up with a mentally ill household member. When substance abuse is included, the number skyrockets to 30.6 percent for women and 27.5 percent for men.

Women are also more than twice as likely as men to become victims of sexual abuse while growing up, 17.2 percent for women as compared to 6.7 percent for men.

Because the CDC identifies a family history of suicide, mental illness, and alcohol or drug abuse as major risk factors for suicide, school personnel need to stay alert for signs of trouble and recognize that bad behavior might just represent a cry for help.

No wonder a recent article in the Washington Post cited bullying and abuse at home by older siblings or parents as a primary cause of school bullying.

“Domestic violence and bullying feed each other,” wrote Susan M. Swearer, an associate professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

According to Swearer, a 2007 study indicated that “72 percent of children who were physically abused by their parents became a bully, a victim of a bully, or both.”

Both bullies and victims are at risk for significant mental health issues, from low self-esteem to anxiety and teenage depression.

So, while bullying might serve as a triggering event, or increase a young person’s tendency for “self harm,” other risk factors also likely are involved, according to Swearer.

“Interpreting a teenager’s suicide as a reaction to bullying ignores the complex emotional problems that American youth face,” writers Swearer, author of Bullying Prevention and Intervention: Realistic Strategies for Schools and co-director of the Bullying Research Network. “To understand the complexity of suicidal behavior, we need to look beyond one factor.”

In addition to mental illness, Swearer says easy access to firearms and medication, exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, and isolation might all contribute to a child’s feelings of hopelessness and despair.

Major shifts or changes in behavior, such as isolating former friends, changing peer groups, dropping grades, and losing interest in favorite activities, should raise red flags for educators, parents, neighbors, friends, or other individuals concerned about a child’s well-being.

Other warning signs include difficulty sleeping or over-sleeping, changes in body weight or appetite, irritability, sadness, lethargy, and difficulty concentrating. Younger children might report vague physical symptoms or have more frequent emotional outbursts.

For most young people, developing resiliency and responding well to adversity represent learned skills. As such, we need to help students develop these characteristics and not simply judge them for not having them.

The National Association of School Psychologists offers several tips for parents and educators for increasing student resiliency, from encouraging students to express negative emotions to modeling positive attitudes and getting more physically fit.

Connect with Kids, a video production company, offers documentary-style programs on a wide range of social and emotional health concerns, including teen stress, over-scheduled children, school bullying, teen suicide, cutting, and other often taboo subjects.

These programs are available online for a subscription or may be purchased for use in training and informational sessions.

Connect with Kids also will create videos and other custom-made content using local talent, or help school leaders plan town hall forums to get more parents and community members talking about issues of concern to educators.

North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools is using Connect with Kids’ digital content as part of its recently launched Parent Academy program. Parents can view the content online or via GCSTV-2, the district’s public access cable channel.

As economic woes create more burdens for American families, we’ll continue to see more signs of stress in the students we serve. Providing more resources for parents and educators to help them cope with the increase is an important first step.

Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is the chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools.

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