I’m not one to make any exaggerated pronouncements whenever a disturbing trend begins to emerge, but I’m tempted to call this recent spate in bullying-related suicides something of an epidemic.
Suicide rates are already rising in many parts of the world, with particular growth among younger people. Like most social and psychological phenomena, the causes are complex, but the well-documented cases tend to stem from social pressure, especially abusive behavior by peers both in person and, increasingly, online.
Consider this recent heart wrenching tragedy:
Rachel Ehmke, a 13-year-old seventh grader in Mantorville, Minn., died April 29 after hanging herself at her home. The months leading up to the tragedy were a whirlwind of peer abuse instances, her parents say.
Now following Rachel’s Friday funeral that was met with widespread community condolences, Rick and Mary Ehmke are speaking out against the bullying they say their daughter endured at Kasson/Mantorville Middle School and online.
Rachel’s family and friends say the teen fell victim to school bullying last fall when her chewing gum was stuck to her textbooks and the word “slut” was scrawled across her gym locker, the Austin Daily Herald reports. And while she was outgoing, athletic and friendly, the same group of girls reportedly threatened Rachel and kept calling her a “prostitute,” though she had never kissed a boy, according to KMSP.
Two days before Rachel’s death, an anonymous text was sent to other students at the school, KARE reports.
“It was pretty explicit. Something to the effect of that Rachel was a slut and to get her to leave the Kasson-Mantorville School, forward this to everyone you know,” parent Chris Flannery told the station.
But after the text was reported to authorities, it was traced to someone who wasn’t a student at the school, according to Minnesota Public Radio. The district’s bullying policy prohibits threats both in person and online, and promises investigations within 24 hours of any reported bullying.
This wasn’t kind of bullying we popularly imagine, the sort of “boys will be boys” or “girls will be girls” kind of behavior we expect among unruly, still mentally-developing kids. This was outright abuse, because as far as we can tell at this point, the girl did nothing to merit this kind of treatment. This wasn’t part of a larger feud or a personal misunderstanding. It was a concerted, deliberate, and persistent effort to attack her and her reputation without any apparent motive (not that it would be any more justified if there was one).
A beautiful and unique human being is now lost forever because of the wanton cruelty of others, at least one of whom wasn’t even part of her school. The worst part is that Ehmke had to come to terms with another common and underrated challenge with bullying:
Rachel reportedly pleaded with her father not to mention the bullying to school officials, for fear of worsening the situation. A note that her parents found after her death read, “I’m fine = I wish I could tell you how I really feel,” alongside a picture of a broken heart, according to KMSP.
In almost every one of these circumstances, the victim refrains from taking action on their bullying for fear of reprisals. The most prevalent concern, especially for boys, is the perception of weakness or cowardice – “telling on someone” is a serious infraction in youth social norms.
So the social pressure is two-fold: not only are you repressed for being who you are (or not being who others want you to be), but you must bear with the subsequent suffering in silence, lest you get even more ostracized. This makes the agony of bullying even more unbearable, and the mental and emotional strain is what ultimately leads some to death.
Now this is where many people will make the inevitable claim that kids like these are too sensitive or even cowardly. In fact, the upward trend in bullying-caused suicides is being seen as a reflection of how weak-minded and spineless our younger generations are. The problem isn’t the cruelty of others, which has always existed, but the fact that kids don’t know how to take it anymore, due to softer parents, an overly sensitive culture, and other societal factors.
While it’s true that bullying has always been around, we need to keep in mind that the psychological and social context has changed considerably. We live in a world where personal image is everything, and people have all sorts of venues in which they can make themselves known – and from which they can be judged, attacked, and discriminated against.
In a society that places ever more importance on how you’re perceived, and that has made social interaction of some kind ubiquitous and nearly unavoidable (even if it is electronic), the kind of merciless assaults on your self-worth that Rachel endured can literally kill you. This is especially true of young people whose values and worldviews are still underdeveloped, and where peer pressure is even more pronounced and influential.
Furthermore, we need to consider that there is increasing evidence that certain preexisting biological and neurological factors increase one’s likelihood to end their lives (or to endure other pre-suicidal mental illnesses). People with lower levels of serotonin in the brain, for example, have a much higher chance of killing themselves. When someone points out how plenty of people get bullied, yet only a few kill themselves, it’s not evidence that those few were especially sensitive; it could very well be that they happened to have had the innate biological and psychological factors that bullying ended up being triggering.
At any rate, it’s counterproductive and callous to write off the psychological anguish of people as a mere matter of personal weakness. If anything, such assumptions only strengthen the motivations of bullies, who often base their actions on this social-Darwinist notion of survival of the fittest. They may even dismiss any responsibility they had for their victim’s death by claiming they were just being cowardly anyway.
At any rate, bullying is clearly a problem of some kind, even if it weren’t driving people into suicide.
Dodge County authorities plan to meet this week to discuss possible criminal charges, the Star Tribune reports. But Rick Ehmke says the family doesn’t plan to press charges against those who bullied his daughter.
“They’re kids. They made some horrible decisions. If these kids would’ve known this would happen I’m pretty sure they never, ever would have done what they did,” Rick Ehmke told Minnesota Public Radio. “Sadly enough, even those kids that know who they are will carry this bag their whole life. That’s a sad thing too, it really is.”
I’d like to think they’d have that much remorse, but who knows anymore. As I stated before, many bullies just see it as survival of the fittest: people like Rachel were too weak to take it, so they had what was coming to them.
He also notes that the school should have taken heavier measures against the bullies when the taunting was first reported in the fall, adding that technology like phones and social media may have worsened an already bad situation by allowing the bully to essentially follow students home.
“Words hurt. Word can kill,” mother Mary Ehmke told KARE.
Community members have planned a prayer vigil and walk in Rachel’s memory for 2 p.m. May 19 at Mill Pond in Austin, Minn. The walk aims to show support for the Ehmke family and raise awareness for teen suicide and bullying.
The U.S. Department of Education has identified 16 “key components” in state bullying legislation, including a statement of scope, listing of enumerated groups, process of district policy review, definitions and reporting guidelines. Minnesota ranks last in the country with its state bullying law only covering two of the 16 components, according to an Education Department analysis of state bullying laws released in December. Nebraska ranks second-to-last by covering four of the 16 components.
Statement of scope, one of the most common components of state bullying laws, establishes where legislation applies and what conditions must exist for schools to have authority over student conduct.
According to the Education Department report, Minnesota is one of just three states — alongside Wisconsin and Arizona — that prohibits bullying but doesn’t define that behavior. The state also doesn’t provide for its districts a model bullying policy, and at a mere 37 words, its anti-bullying law is the shortest one in the country:
Each school board shall adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying of any student. The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use.
So what kind of problem is bullying, and what sort of solutions should be implementing? Is it something that requires legal and political action, as discussed above? Or is it more of a sociocultural problem, as I’m more inclined to believe? Maybe it’s a bit of both?
It’s important to note that many cases of bullying hardly black-and-white: polls have shown that as many kids identify as being both victims and perpetrators of bullying as being just one or the other. The problem seems to be that kids in general are just cruel to each other, period, and that some unfortunate number of them is being pushed to the edge due to preexisting psychological issues – which raises another area of action, namely improving our understanding of mental illness and our ability to both discuss it frankly and treat it.
The sad fact, as with most social issues, is that we can’t save everyone. There will always be immorality, and thus there will always be victims of it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to lessen the toll. The question is how we should, or even could, go about doing it.
I personally think that a lot of this comes down to improving the ethics, behavior, and psychological wellbeing of children. We should make the teaching of these values mandatory at every grade level, and have it be far more immersive and intensive. We should expand the counseling services of our schools, which are often the first to get cut or reduced. I’m not saying any of this will end bullying, but it may certainly help. Plus, it’s important to learn these sorts of things in general, not just to prevent bullying.
Of course this is only the start: a lot of this comes down to parenting, as well as to influence of society as a whole. Look at the political and public rhetoric out there, and you see a lot of examples of what we could otherwise call bullying: people demonizing each other, being arrogant, and refusing to hear one another out. We value toughness, hyper-individualism, consumerism, and other behaviors that may encourage a more egoistic and selfish worldview. In many ways, bullying is just a manifestation of the same sort of obsession with competition and success that pervades every segment of society: asserting your social superiority, proving to others you’re the toughest and baddest person around, etc. Might any of this play a role?
These are just my opinions though, and I could be dead wrong. Anyone care to comment or set me straight?