More to the Story: When Bullying and Mental Health Concerns Collide

The intense media coverage about our schools prompted by movies (Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere) and news coverage of student bullying and suicides has touched so many of us in recent weeks.  In both cases media focus has been more aimed at trying to assign blame than it has been on understanding the underlying issues.

In the following thoughtful piece, guest blogger Jason Culp, our Head of Lawrence Upper School, looks behind the headlines and shares his perspectives as a school leader, a parent, and a counselor.

It is an important read.

We welcome your thoughts and questions.

Lou

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More to the Story:  When Bullying and Mental Health Concerns Collide

By Jason Culp
Upper School Head
Lawrence School

It is likely that you’ve recently spent some time, as I have, watching or reading media reports of the  alarming frequency at which young people across the United States have been taking their own lives in response to the bullying they have suffered both in person and online.  Often, I find myself unable to watch the full reports of these losses of young lives, as I imagine the void left in the lives of their families, peer groups and schools as they come to grips with the senseless and violent loss of another child.

Over and over again, with an ever-increasing intensity, the claim is made that a suicide occurred as the result of bullying. Experts are interviewed and panels meet to discuss the need for bullying prevention programs in schools. Parents criticize schools for the lack of intervention on bullying incidents, schools blame parents for abdicating the responsibility for educating their children on respectful treatment of others, and all of us who care about children shudder and wait, hoping the next suicide will not be our neighbor, our friend, our child or our student.

What is interesting in this ever-more heated debate about bullying and its connection to suicide is that there is one essential mediating factor that is rarely, if ever discussed.

Consider remarks by Pat Lyden, Executive Director of the Suicide Prevention Education Alliance of Northeast Ohio:

The media frenzy about bullying and suicide is distracting school administrators and parents from the facts. Depression is the main cause of suicide, in all age groups.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens, yet it is our most preventable form of death. The nation should be up in arms about the state of our children’s mental health. One in five teens seriously consider suicide during their high school years, 14% of teens make a suicide plan and 8% of teens attempt suicide. In fact, half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age 14.

Depression must be recognized and treated, yet only one in five teens with a mental disorder receive treatment. Untreated depression leads to a downward life spiral that often includes addiction and co-occurring mental illnesses.

In other words, popular wisdom about the direct causal link between bullying and suicide misses the critical intervening impact of mental illness in the lives of those we have lost to suicide in recent days. And, unless we address both bullying and mental illness, with equal intensity and equal commitment to change, we will continue to experience the tragedy of young lives snuffed out before their time.

Bullying prevention is important, but it is insufficient to stop teen suicide. Lawrence School has a comprehensive bullying prevention program that has been in effect for several years. We respond consistently and forcefully to all reports of bullying behavior on the part of our students, each and every time it occurs. Nonetheless, we have students who express suicidal ideation, and who need the support of the school, their parents and the mental health community in order to recover and retain their sense of personal safety and well-being.

Sometimes, bullying is a contributing issue in the development of mental health concerns; often it is not. Bullying does not always equal suicide. Bullying, with a known or developing mental health concern can be the combination that becomes fatal. We have an obligation to our children to respond to both.

Beginning in the fall of 2011, Lawrence School will launch a mental health screening program at the Upper School, involving students in grades 7-12. We will be using a standardized measure to ask basic questions about student mental health, with a particular focus on issues related to depression and anxiety.

The results will be compiled and interpreted by Dr. Ethan Schafer, our consulting psychologist, and Dr. Elaine Schulte, Lawrence’s medical director and member of the Board of Trustees. We will use the data we find to drive decisions related to the type of mental health support services that are needed at Lawrence, as well as to determine the types of curricular adjustments/program additions that would most benefit our students.

In addition, should we find that a student is in particular need of support related to their mental health concerns, the screening process will allow us to identify the student and intervene appropriately –hopefully well before a crisis emerges.

Data will never be shared publicly, and instead, will only be used internally to serve our students and their families in the best way we possibly can. Certainly, appropriate survey permissions will be secured ahead of time, and an opt-out procedure for those families not wishing to participate will be available. More information will be distributed about this initiative in the days and weeks to come.

In closing, I’d like to share the following:  Erik Erikson, a noted psychologist once wrote:

Someday, maybe, there will exist a well-informed, well-considered and yet fervent public conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child’s spirit.

I think of this quote as a challenge to all of us who care for children, whether as parents or educators. We must look beneath the surface of what we see and hear and into the heart of the issue or concern that stands before us. It is only when we look beneath what is obvious and toward what is real, that we will be truly able to prevent the mutilation of our children’s spirits at the hands of others, or worse, by their own hands through the ravages of mental illness that is not identified and therefore not appropriately treated.

We, at Lawrence, know we can do more for our students in this area and are poised to begin an important journey. We hope you’ll join us as we shine a light on depression, anxiety and suicide and help to ensure that not one more soul is lost to the silent, insidious power of mental illness.

E-mail the author at jculp@lawrenceschool.org or leave your comments below.

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About lsalza

Headmaster of Lawrence School serving children with learning differences in grades K-12; "Where differences are not disabilities and where great minds don't think alike."
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