A Little Love Goes a Long Way

Suicidal thoughts among teens involved in bullying less likely if they know others care

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Much research about bullying focuses on how bad it is or what causes it to happen. But it's just as important to know what helps those involved in bullying, for both victims and bullies alike.

Bullies and victims with a history of emotional stress or self-injury, like cutting, were more likely to consider or attempt suicide.

A recent study found that some factors can reduce the risk of bullies and victims considering or attempting suicide.

Those factors include good relationships with their parents and feeling loved by friends and other adults in the community.

"Help prevent bullying."

The study, led by Iris Wagman Borowsky, MD, PhD, looked at both the risk factors and protective factors for contemplating suicide among youth who had been verbally or socially bullied.

Risk factors are the things that make it more likely for a preteen or teen to consider suicide.

Protective factors are the things that make it less likely that they would consider or attempt suicide.

The study did not look at online or electronic bullying or at physically bullying.

It focused only on verbal bullying and social bullying, which includes calling people names, excluding them from activities, spreading mean rumors about them, ostracizing them and other similar tactics.

The researchers analyzed the responses of 130,908 students to a survey given to Minnesota sixth graders, ninth graders and twelfth graders.

For the study, "frequent bullying" was defined as being bullied once a week or more during the past 30 days.

Overall, 6.1 percent of the students reported being frequent bullies, and 9.6 percent reported being frequent victims of bullying. Also, 3.1 percent of the respondents reported being both a victim and a bully frequently.

According to Dr. Borowsky in an interview with dailyRx News, differences between those percentages and percentages seen in other bullying studies might relate to how bullying was defined and how "frequent" bullying was defined.

She said 43 percent of the respondents reported no involvement in bullying at all in the past 30 days, and 38 percent said they had been involved (as a bully or a victim) in moderate bullying, which is once or twice in the past 30 days.

Among those who had been frequent perpetrators (bullies) only, 22 percent reported suicidal thinking or a suicide attempt in the past year.

Among those who had been frequent victims of bullying, 29 percent reported either suicidal thinking or a suicide attempt in the past year.

Over a third (38 percent) of those who had been both frequent bullies and frequent victims reported thinking about or attempting suicide in the past year.

After accounting for differences in demographics (such as age, sex, family income, etc.), the students involved in frequent bullying who had a history of self-injury or emotional distress were more likely to think about or attempt suicide, regardless if they had been a victim, a bully or both.

Those who had been only frequent bullies or frequent victims (but not both) were at a higher risk for considering suicide if they had experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse, a mental health problem or had run away from home.

According to Dr. Borowsky, these findings point to the need to screen children for being both victims and perpetrators of bullying.

"It's important to ask about both victimization and perpetration and to screen for other risk factors especially in those high risk groups," Dr. Borowsky said.

The good news is that the study found several factors that reduced bullies' and victims' risk of contemplating suicide.

Feeling a sense of connectedness with their parents decreased the risk that both bullies and victims would consider or attempt suicide.

Feeling that friends and other adults in the community cared about them also reduced the risk of suicidal thoughts or attempts, the study found.

"Perceiving that you have a good relationship with parents and that you can talk to them, and knowing that friends and other adults like religious leaders care about you, were all protective factors for these high risk group against suicidal thoughts or attempts," Dr. Borowsky said.

"It's important for parents, friends and adults to know that they can have a positive impact for someone involved in bullying by being connected to them and being involved," she said.

Dr. Borowsky noted that whole school interventions that involve students, teachers, the administration and parents have been shown to be effective in reducing bullying.

"Parent training programs that help parents learn to parent effectively and develop that connectedness that's so protective, as well as effective monitoring of children, can help prevent bullying," she said.

The study was published June 19 in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The research was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 24, 2013
Last Updated:
August 1, 2013