Schools must prepare to do more to stop teen suicide, bullying

High schoolers with suicide risk behaviors are more than 4 times more likely to have experienced cyberbullying than youth who don’t have suicide risk. It’s essential to address bullying at school as part of adolescent suicide prevention.

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A “No Bully Zone” sign on the door of a school classroom.

A “No Bully Zone” sign hangs on the door of a school classroom.

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Adolescent suicide and bullying among adolescents are related, severe, and preventable public health problems. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24. Bullying occurs at alarmingly high rates: 19.5% of high school students reported being bullied on school property in 2019, and 15.7% of high schoolers reported experiencing cyberbullying in the prior 12 months.

Incidents at high schools across the nation have received media coverage in the past decade. In each instance, distraught parents struggled to make sense of what happened and what could have been done differently.

These devastating events are a call to action for schools and education policy-makers, and they highlight the need to screen for and prevent bullying, and to support adolescents who experience it at school.

One example is the case of a 15-year-old student at The Latin School of Chicago, who was found dead by his father earlier this year. The teen had taken his own life at home. 

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The Latin School is one of the most selective private schools in the Chicagoland area and the Midwest. The parents are now suing the school for $100 million, alleging that the wrongful death of their son occurred, according to their lawsuit, because of a “willful failure by teachers and officials at the school to take any action to remedy the horrific treatment that he had endured prior to his death despite being aware and/or having every reason to be aware of what he was enduring through numerous complaints by both the student and his mother.” 

The defendants include the head of the school, licensed professional counselors, teachers, minor students and their parents.

Changing the culture

High schoolers with suicide risk behaviors are more than 4 times more likely to have experienced cyberbullying than youth who don’t have suicide risk. Yet bullying, unlike many of the identified risk factors for suicide, is preventable.

But how do schools undertake the monumental task of changing the culture of bullying? 

Because youth spend more time in school than anywhere else, prevention starts here. Schools must move beyond academics and create supportive environments that promote coping skills in youth and family and school social support.

The most successful strategies take a multidisciplinary “whole school” approach. This involves a combination of school-wide rules and policies against bullying; teacher training on identifying the warning signs for bullying or at-risk youth; a classroom curriculum to promote coping skills and social-emotional learning; conflict resolution strategies; and the availability of individual counseling. 

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Beyond these key changes, building a sense of connection between youth and their school community has the most potential to move the needle for bullying and suicide prevention. This connection can be built by electing student leaders to work alongside school personnel on procedures that will create a culture of connection, respect, and responsibility. Students who find their school environment to be trusting and fair have less involvement in bullying, while positive connections with school staff lower the risk of suicide among youth who are targets of cyberbullying.

In addition, more monitoring of students who show signs of suicide risk — for instance, those who are struggling socially, are absent more often or have repeated visits to the school nurse and counselor — can help identify those who need more targeted services.

These changes are not easily made. Schools must take responsibility for messaging, identify problems early and support students from the outset. 

It begins with a simple message to our children: No one deserves to be bullied, and we will do everything we can to support you. These tragedies can be prevented.

Sally Weinstein, Ph.D. is an associate professor and Anand Kumar, MD, MHA is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois in Chicago.  They are associate director and director, respectively, of the University of Illinois Center on Depression and Resilience.

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