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Studies Suggest, But Don't Confirm, Bullying-Suicide Connection

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Researchers have repeatedly found signs of an apparent connection between bullying and suicide in children, according to a new review of studies from 13 countries. Nevertheless, there is no definitive evidence that bullying makes kids more likely to kill themselves.

Still, “once we see that there’s an association, we can act on it and try to prevent it,” said review lead author Dr. Young-Shin Kim, an assistant professor at Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center.

According to international studies, bullying is common and affects anywhere from 9 percent to 54 percent of children. In the United States, many have blamed bullying for spurring acts of violence, including the Columbine High School massacre.

Kim said her interest in bullying grew several years ago when she visited South Korea and heard several new slang terms referring to bullies and their victims. The words reflected “an elaborated system of bullying,” she said.

In the United States, adults scoff at bullying and say, “Oh, that’s what happens when kids are growing up,” according to Kim, who argues that bullying is a serious situation that causes major problems for children — perhaps even contributing to suicidal thoughts and actions.

In the new review, Kim and a colleague analyzed 37 studies that examined bullying and suicide among children and adolescents. The studies took place in the United States, Canada, several European countries (including the United Kingdom and Germany), South Korea, Japan and South Africa.

The review findings appear in the latest issue of the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health.

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Almost all of the studies found connections between bullying and suicidal thoughts among children. Five reported that bullying victims were two to nine times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than other children were.

Not just the victims were in danger: “The perpetrators who are the bullies also have an increased risk for suicidal behaviors,” Kim said.

However, the designs of the studies made it impossible for researchers to determine conclusively whether bullying leads to suicide, Kim said. In addition, the authors report that most of the studies failed to take into account the influence of factors like gender, psychiatric problems and a history of suicide attempts.

The review by Kim and colleagues is useful because it compiles what researchers know into one place and is consistent with evidence that “bullying experiences should be taken seriously,” said Stephen Russell, director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth and Families at the University of Arizona.

As for the connection between bullying and suicide in teens, Russell said it relates to identity and self-worth, with bullies undermining teens who are trying to figure out who they are and what they think about themselves.

Kim is working on research that will explore whether bullying actually causes suicide, although she acknowledges it will be difficult for researchers to get a firm grasp on a cause-and-effect relationship. To confirm a definitive link, researchers would have to rule out the possibility that some unknown factor makes certain children more susceptible to both bullying and suicide.

Russell said it is difficult to figure out the extent to which suicidal thoughts and attempts actually predict suicide. “Not everyone who commits suicide is known to have thought about it or to have had prior attempts — and certainly not everyone who thinks about it or even attempts it will make a serious attempt or complete suicide,” he said.

For now, Kim said, the existing research should encourage adults to pay more attention to bullying and signs of suicidal behavior in children. “When we see kids who are associated with bullying, we should ask them if they’re thinking about hurting themselves,” she said. “We should evaluate and prevent these things from happening.”

A researcher who studies teen suicide agreed: “We need to keep at it; not studying it and trying to intervene is just not an option,” said David Jobes, professor of psychology at The Catholic University of America.