Focus on Bullying: Experts say bullying can exacerbate mental health problems for bullies and victims

Joshua Kellogg The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Helping students involved in bullying is important not only for their physical health, but also for their emotional and mental well-being.

While the roles mental and behavioral health play in bullying are complex, experts say understanding those factors offers insight into bullies and their victims.

Bullying is unhealthy for both the bully and the person being bullied, and the behavior can often worsen current mental health issues or prompt news ones to develop, said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"Bullying is a behavior with an unequal balance of power. It's continuous aggressive behavior towards a person," Harkavy-Friedman said. "You can imagine if you are a student in school and somebody is stressing you out and bullying — showing they're in control and you are not, actively being aggressive against you — that (can) be tremendously stressful. If you also happen to be at risk for depression, you might get depressed."

Harkavy-Friedman has been studying suicidal behaviors for more than 25 years. She said as people try to understand suicide, they often link it with bullying, even when bullying is not a clear cause for a suicide.

"When we go back and look at people who have died by suicide — kids for instance — the issue of bullying comes up. They've always found there were other factors involved," Harkavy-Friedman said. "Being bullied was a huge stress on their system."

For Tina Meier, that is an important message for parents. Meir is the executive director of the Megan Meier Foundation, a Missouri-based nonprofit she established after her 14-year-old daughter took her life in 2006 after being cyberbullied.

"Going through issues with cyberbullying, parents are a nervous wreck," Meier said. "They hear it and see it on the news, and there is that instant thought of, 'My child is being bullied. Oh my gosh, what happens if they take their own life?'"

But, she said, parents should resist instantly jumping to that conclusion.

"We have to be very careful when putting things out into the world," Meier said. "That people understand that bullying and cyberbullying do not automatically (cause) them to self-harm or take their own life. That is not the case. There are many other different factors that contribute to a person who has suicidal ideation or completes suicide."

Meir said her daughter met a teenager named "Josh Evans" via social networking website MySpace. He turned out to be a fictional person concocted to find out gossip about another girl, Meir said.

The day before her death, Megan was bombarded with vulgar messages that called her names and preyed on her insecurities. The final message, her mother said, stated the world would be better off without her in it.

Meier said her daughter struggled with self-esteem and in-person bullying in school.

"These situations alone did not, do not, contribute 100 percent to a suicide. That's not the case," Meier said. "You have to look at other situations, and Megan did struggle with depression and (attention-deficit disorder)."

Bullying and cyberbullying can affect children's development and trigger mental health issues they already experience, Harkavy-Friedman said.

"We have a whole stress response system set up to stay away from danger," she said. "It's run by certain hormones and neural transmitters. Those things can get out of whack because (of) something like early stress. If somebody has been traumatized as a child or victimized or had horrible traumatic events, their stress response system can be more sensitive than other people."

If the body's stress response system is always activated and people feel under attack, that can increase the risk of health problems such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, memory issues and weight gain.

Harkavy-Friedman cited a study that examined bullies for an extended period of time and found that youth who bullied were often depressed before they started picking on others.

"The kids who were struggling the most were the bullies that were also victims themselves," Harkavy-Friedman said. "Being a bully is not a static thing. It's just behavior. ... I think that's hopeful because we can do something about it. It's not inherent to who the person is."

Harkavy-Friedman believes bullying prevention programs that encourage mutual respect and compassion and teach alternatives to aggressive behavior can play a major role in changing schools' cultures.

That's what Meier is trying to do. She travels the country and shares her daughter's story with students, parents and educators to encourage empathy and demonstrate that everyone struggles with problems. Often, her lessons focus on peer-to-peer education to show students they can make a difference by standing up to bullies.

Identifying warning signs of mental and behavioral health issues is another important part of helping bullies and their victims.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is a founding member of "The Campaign to Change Direction," an initiative that helps people with mental health illnesses recognize their own issues, share them with others and seek treatment and recovery.

Warning signs for people struggling with mental health issues include withdrawal, agitation, poor hygiene, low energy, fatigue and hopelessness, Harkavy-Friedman said. Being in emotional contact with friends and family can help identify warning signs.

"Your kid could look great ... but they could have a little shorter fuse," Harkavy-Friedman said. "You don't notice a change if you don't know what is going on beforehand."

In San Juan County, local counseling services and school districts have made efforts to reach out to students.

On Thursday, the Aztec Municipal School District offered a suicide prevention training, following up on an youth suicide prevention meeting it hosted in January after the deaths of two students.

Roger Pipkins and Brian Swanhart, both with the Albuquerque-based nonprofit Straight Scoop for Vets and Friends, led Thursday's training. The organization teaches veteran suicide prevention and awareness. Before the evening's public training, the men taught school staff from Aztec and other nearby districts a prevention style they call "question, persuade, refer." While not intended as counseling or treatment, Pipkins described this as a form of early intervention that tries to get a person in crisis to seek professional help.

Pipkins and Swanhart travel to rural areas of New Mexico to lead these kinds of training to reach veterans.

"We don't always get directly to the veterans in the rural areas, so what we try to do is build a safety net around everybody," Pipkins said. "If we train the kids, the parents, the neighbors and the co-workers, it's a lot easier to protect a veteran."

Desert View Counseling and Consulting works with bullied students from area schools who are referred to the office, said Rick Quevado, CEO of the Farmington-based agency. He said his staff help bullying victims understand it's not always their fault and to identify things that may make them more susceptible to bullying.

Trying to explain the behavior of bullies, however, can be a little more difficult, Quevado said.

"It's about how we can help that person who has bullying behavior understand the impact of their hurtful behavior towards others and why they are bullying," Quevado said.

Some parents, Quevado said, struggle to understand why their children act out and make statements about how their kids need to "toughen up." That, he said, can make it even more difficult to overcome the stigma mental health problems carry.

"You think about adults and how hard it is for them to figure out their problems. Imagine a young person who doesn't understand their emotions and things they are going through," Quevado said.

Joshua Kellogg covers education forThe Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4527 and Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.

Warning signs of suicide

• While these signs are often associated with suicide, experts say a single sign does not mean a person intends to kill himself. The more signs presented, the greater the risk.

• Talking about wanting to die

• Looking for a way to kill oneself

• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose, being a burden to others

• Increased use of alcohol or drugs

• Acting anxious, agitated or reckless

• Sleeping too little or too much

• Withdrawing or isolating

• Displaying extreme mood swings

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:

• Do not leave the person alone

• Remove any weapons or items that could be used in a suicide attempt

• Call the New Mexico Crisis and Access Line at 1-855-NMCRISIS (662-7474)

• Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional


Index of stories

March 29: Family speaks on suicide

April 1: School districts' policies

April 5: Cyberbullying

Today: Bullying and mental health

April 12: What causes bullying