Bullies and their victims are both more likely to think about or attempt suicide, but whether they hurt themselves can depend on the support they think they have.
The discovery comes from a new analysis by researchers at the University of Minnesota of information from middle- and high-school students on either side of the bully equation.
Students affected by bullying were much less likely to think about or attempt suicide if they felt closely connected to their parents, liked school, or had meaningful relationships with friends or adults, such as teachers or religious leaders, the study found.
On the other hand, students who were perpetrators or victims of bullying were more likely to attempt suicide if they ran away from home or reported emotional distress or traumatic experiences in their childhoods.
The study doesn’t answer a controversial question — whether bullying causes students to attempt suicide at a greater rate. But the identification of these protective and risk factors is significant because it can help school counselors and doctors identify the students who need help the most, said Iris Borowsky, lead author of the study and the director of the U’s pediatric and adolescent health division.
“Perceiving that you are close to your parents — you can communicate with them, you have a good relationship with them — was highly protective among this high-risk group,” she said.
Cause-effect link still unclear
The question of whether bullying causes suicidal behavior emerged in the Twin Cities following a recent cluster of suicides involving students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. Parents criticized the district for being lax in its bullying prevention — particularly bullying over students’ sexual orientations — while the district reviewed each student death and found that few if any could be directly tied to bullying.
The latest university study was based on a review of the 2010 Minnesota Student Survey, a questionnaire given to thousands of students in the state on a variety of social, academic and safety issues. The survey asked students about suicide and bullying, but did not ask them their perceptions about whether one led to the other.
Despite the lack of a cause-effect finding, the U’s analysis of the student survey data did identify a strong relationship. Among students who reported no bullying in the month before the survey, only 7.5 percent reported attempts or thoughts of suicide. Among students who reported being frequently victimized by bullying, 28 percent reported attempts or thoughts of suicide.
The risk was highest — at 38 percent — among students who reported being both a victim and perpetrator of bullying in the prior month, according to the U study, which was published in a special supplement of the Journal of Adolescent Health that focused on bullying.
“Bullying is something that happens commonly, and it is associated with serious psychosocial consequences, including suicidal behavior,” Borowsky said. “So we need to pay attention, and we need to pay attention by first of all preventing bullying and then identifying those who are involved in bullying and screening them for various risk and protective factors.”
The 2010 survey only queried students on whether they were bullied socially or verbally. The 2013 survey, which won’t be released until winter, also asks students about bullying that is physical or occurs online.