What Minnesota teen survey shows about bullying

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2013 - 10:18 AM

Adult connections can help adolescents avoid self-inflicted harm.

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When it comes to keeping teens safe and successful, it’s no secret that relationships with adults matter.

In fact, a recent evaluation of a Minnesota teen survey indicates that bullies and their victims are less likely to think of suicide or otherwise hurt themselves when they have strong support from adults. The new study from University of Minnesota researchers reaffirms the importance of building those relationships for as many kids as possible.

Fostering deeper, more engaged connections — whether with parents, teachers, coaches, neighbors or other community members — can play a critical role in protecting adolescents from self-inflicted harm.

The study was based on an analysis of the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey, a questionnaire about a variety of academic, social and safety issues. It was published in a special supplement of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Produced by scholars in the pediatric and adolescent health division, the report noted that students who bully others and those who are bullied were much less likely to think about or attempt suicide if they felt closely connected to their parents, liked school, or had meaningful relationship with friends or adults.

And kids who were bullying victims, perpetrators or both were more likely to attempt suicide if they ran away from home or reported emotional distress or traumatic experiences in their childhoods.

The study’s authors did not make a direct cause-and-effect tie; their report does not say that bullying causes students to attempt suicide at higher rates. But identifying students who lack those significant relationships can help school and health care professionals determine who is most at-risk and who needs the most help.

Even without a direct link, university researchers identified a strong pattern. Among students who reported no bullying in the month before the survey, only 7.5 percent reported attempts or thoughts of suicide. The figure was 28 percent among students who reported being frequently victimized by bullying. But the risk was highest — at 38 percent — among students who reported being both a victim and perpetrator of bullying in the prior month.

The relationship between bullying and suicide has been discussed nationally in recent years. The issue became most prominent in the Twin Cities after several suicides involving student in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Some in that community criticized the district for not doing enough to prevent bullying and other harassment — particularly over student sexual orientation.

The district’s own investigation said that few if any of the deaths could be directly tied to bullying, but after a federal investigation, Anoka-Hennepin adjusted some of its policies.

But there is no doubt that strong connections with adults are positive factors for teens in many areas of their lives. As a result, the Twin Cities-based Search Institute is focusing on studying, strengthening and supporting the development relationships that help young people be more successful in school and in life.

The respected institute has a long history of doing research on a number of youth issues, including improving student achievement and reducing risky behaviors. It is known for developing a comprehensive list of assets that give young people the best chance to be successful.

Its new work seeks to identify the factors in relationships that can be intentionally strengthened in families, schools, youth programs and other settings. The group then will create tools, training and technical assistance that can be used to build those relationships.

In its new strategy statement, the institute says, “Rather than leaving relationships to chance, Search Institute will help schools, families organization and communities to get their relationships right with the young people they serve.”

That work will no doubt show that more work on the third of three Rs — rigor, relevance and relationships — can help more youths successfully navigate the challenges of adolescence.

  • Making a difference

    “Building relationships with students is not just about someone talking to them. … You have to know the spark in a young person and nurture that spark. There are positive effects of putting those kinds of connections in kids’ lives that can produce profound change …’’

    KENT PEKEL, president and CEO of Search Institute

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