On Sept. 9, 2010, the eve of World Suicide Prevention Day, 15-year-old Billy Lucas hung himself in a barn on his grandmother’s property. His mother found his body.
The victim of classmates’ taunts (“fag,” they called him and told him to kill himself), Lucas, who self-identified as gay, wasn’t alone in his suffering. Nine out of 10 gay teenagers are targets of bullying and harassment at school.
"There is a need for health care professionals, and others who work with children, to be aware that sexual minority youth are more likely to be victims of bullying and other forms of violence," said Elise Berlan, MD, lead author of a recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health and physician at Adolescent Medicine at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
Bullying, of course, isn’t limited to sexual-minority teens. It extends to children and adolescents for a number of reasons, including physical stature and looks, race, socioeconomic status and physical and mental challenges, among others. In fact, in the first study of its kind, researchers recently found that about 35 percent of children over the age of five with food allergies were reported to have experienced bullying, teasing or harassment as a result of their allergies.
“The results are disturbing, as they show that children not only have to struggle with managing their food allergies, but also commonly bear harassment from their peers,” said Scott H. Sicherer, MD, Professor of Pediatrics at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
To combat bullying head-on, the PACER Center, an advocacy group for children with disabilities, is helping bring awareness to the devastating effects of the behavior in October, National Bullying Prevention Month.
Some schools, many of which have previously taken heat for not being active enough in the surveillance of and fight against bullying, are getting in on the act. Leaders at Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla., say they plan to talk to students about cyberbullying (bullying on the Internet through instant messages, emails and social networking Web sites) and “sexting” (sexually graphic photos and messages sent via cell phone texts) to observe National Bullying Prevention Month.
“People used to think that bullying was a part of growing up, that it made kids tougher, that words couldn’t hurt – all ideas we now know to not be true,” said a spokesperson for the PACER Center. “The fact is, bullying is a learned behavior. It erodes self-esteem and self-confidence, and it can have long-lasting, painful effects.”
In response to Billy Lucas’ suicide and other sexual-minority adolescents who have suffered taunts, threats and physical altercations from bullies, advice columnist Dan Savage has launched a video-sharing page on youtube.com, known as the "It Gets Better Project." The aim of the site is to reach LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) teens with the simple message that life won’t always be like it is in high school or junior high, it gets better.
“Many LGBT kids who do kill themselves live in rural areas, exurbs and suburban areas, places with no gay organizations or services,” Savage said. “I wish I could have talked to this kid [Lucas] for five minutes. … I wish I could have told him that however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”
Parents should also take time to communicate with their children about sensitive topics, such as sexuality, peer relations and violence, said Dr. Berlan.
So in the spirit of National Bullying Prevention Month, talk to your kids about bullying. Ask questions. Get involved. Contact their educators. Who knows, you might alleviate your own son’s or daughter’s anxieties or fears or frustrations. You might even save a life.