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Monday, 15 October 2012

Bullying and its Tragic Consequences - A public health issue deserving consistent intervention

The tragic events surrounding the suicide of Amanda Todd in BC re-raises the long standing issue of school “bullying” and the potential fatal outcomes.  It poses questions on what went wrong? but how well are we doing in facing the issue?

Data are not rigourous, but work suggests up to 2/3rds of middle school students have been bullied  and an equal number just consider bullying part of school life.  One in 8-12 of these students being bullied at least weekly and a similar number being the instigator of bullying.  At Grades 4-6 the rates of bullying are about one-quarter of students.  Rates amongst males are slightly higher than females and more likely physical whereas female bullying more likely verbal.  More on what we know in Canada can be found at a Public Safety Canada website Bullying - Public Safety Canada and  a non-profit stop bullying group.

Canada has had its share of high profile consequences from bullying, with Amanda Todd being the most recent.  Another BC situation resulted in murder charges associated with the death of Rena Virk in 1997.   In the wake of Columbine in the US, imitative behaviour led to another school shooting in Alberta.

Bullying activity peaks in Grades 6-8, but the consequences are lifelong.  Perpetrators of bullying are eight to ten times more likely to engage in other delinquent behaviour and subsequently to be associated with gang activity, sexual harassment, and other criminal activity.  Bullys are also more likely to continue abusive behaviours in the workplace, relationships, and with children and elders.  Victims of bullying are more likely to have episodes of depression including suicide.

Prevention of bullying can be facilitated by numerous packaged programs which are provided to the school setting (eg PREVnet  Bullying.org ).    The best solutions likely rest in comprehensive school engagement on the issues of bullying throughout the students experiences and include developing social skills and camaraderie, education, family and student counselling, intervention and enforcement.

Racial tension, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, academic achievement, physical stature and gang association are all well established characteristics associated with bullying. The forms of bullying expand to the available modes of interaction, and considerable attention is being paid to the import of cyberbullying through social media, in particular Facebook or other forms where filtering and censoring of messaging is minimal.

While knowledge of bullying is increasing, little exists on what might have been considered normal school yard behaviour in the past.  Is bullying increasing, or actually decreasing as schools have recognized their contribution to development social skills in addition to rote knowledge development.

Schools are asked to perform many functions beyond that of just education of the traditional 3 “R”s.  Enlightened school districts are willing to step forward and address issues of health, wellbeing and self-esteem.  Pressures from other inclusion programming such as children with special needs can detract from addressing common issues such as relationship development, building collaboration, exceptional students, delinquency and  bullying.  The further form the walls of the school, the less the perceived role of the school setting – yet where else will such issues be resolved?

Public health professional need to be engrained into the school setting to assist in identification of school health needs, both for immediate management, but just as importantly for the lifelong impacts that have their roots at school.

October 15 - CIHR has also responded to the bullying issue and published a short piece on bullying at http://www.cihr-irsc.gc.ca/e/45838.html   

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