What to do about Bullying By Guest Blogger: Tom Tarshis, MD

STIGMA, BULLYING, MENTAL HEALTH AND YOUTH –ALIVE AND WELL IN 2013

Recent events have brought a focus back to bullying behaviors that remain commonplace in society.

Beginning in pre-school and continuing throughout our lives for most people, bullying and victimization remain significant contributors to poor mental health and as such hurt all aspects of our society.  Being bullied as a youth has been associated with depression, anxiety, school violence and suicide. Adults who are bullied have poor job performance, depression, decreased productivity, increased physical problems and worse overall physical and mental health than non-bullied peers.

Bullies are also at risk for significant mental health problems and much more likely to have problems with addiction, legal problems and depression (to name a few).  Although most people would agree that there is more awareness of bullying in our society (versus 20-30 years ago when bullying was still considered a “normal” part of growing-up), bullying and victimization still persist as one of the leading preventable causes of suffering in the form of both physical and mental health, not just in the United States but throughout the world.  Bullying crosses all socio-demographics (from the poorest communities to the most affluent).  Most states are still doing poorly in enacting laws to protect children at school from being bullied.  Logically, no child can do well at school when they are worried about being bullied.  Kids who are bullied often present with symptoms such as stomach-aches, headaches, depression, anxiety, inattention or aggressive behavior at home.  It is important for parents and physicians to ask questions about the school environment and make sure that children are neither being bullied or bullying others.

The “scientific” definition of bullying generally requires the following three components:

1)      The bully intends to harm, hurt or damage the victim physically, socially or                    emotionally.

2)      There is a “power” differential between the bully and the victim

3)      Events happen repeatedly over time

This does not mean that a single event does not have potential traumatic impact on someone.  It is also important to recognize that bullying is less often physical, and more often emotional or social bullying (cyberbullying, teasing, exclusion from activities, etc.).  Research suggests that non-physical bullying, which is more common in girls, is actually more damaging than physical bullying.

What to do?

Research suggests that it is up to entire communities to make changes around the culture of bullying in order for true success in decreasing bullying and victimization.  For youth, this means that the school board, administration, principals, teachers, staff and THEN children need to all be engaged in preventing bullying.  Too often, programs target only children, and this can actually lead to an increase in bullying behavior!

On an individual level, we have a handout to guide parents on steps to take before and if your child is bullied. https://baca.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/Bully-Steps-11-12-2012.pdf

Children and adults have the right to a bully-free environment.  More action by parents, kids and community leaders to change the culture regarding bullying in all settings should be the universal message for our society.

Dr. Tarshis is a Child Psychiatrist serving as the Medical Director of the Bay Area Children’s Association in San Jose, California. He has an extensive background in epidemiological research with a special interest in bullying and victimization. Dr. Tarshis finished his training in child psychiatry at Stanford in 2006 and remains on adjunct faculty. Learn more about Tom and his agency at www.baca.org

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