Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Futility of Suicide as a Response to Bullying

I am a 36 year old disabled woman who has been variously labeled "fat", "crazy", and "a hippie weirdo." I now try to embrace labels that others use in an attempt to "shame" me into being someone more "acceptable". I am passionate about issues of race/racism, criminal (in)justice, fat acceptance, and mental health advocacy. I blog at My Name Is JuJuBe and Inside JuJuBe and I am on the team at The Intersection of Madness and Reality

Recently, we have been hearing multiple stories in the media about gay students being bullied to the point of suicide.  So, now, of course, celebrities, psychologists, teachers, and parents are all jumping in to protest the sort of torment that these students went through due to their sexual orientation. People are donating money to anti-bullying causes and  they are pushing for legislation that penalizes bullies. Celebrities are making public service announcements standing up for the rights of  gay teens. And what is lost in all of this are two things: One, that bullying is by NO MEANS a new phenomenon, and it is only in this new internet savvy world that bullied teenagers who commit suicide  are receiving any attention, and two, that sexual orientation is by no means the sole reason students are bullied.

Where is everyone when a kid gets bullied for being fat? Usually urging the victim to meet with a nutritionist or go to Weight Watchers in order to fit in. Where are the “enlightened” members of the American populace when a child is tormented for speaking differently?  Maybe giving the child pamphlets for ESL classes or speech therapists.  When a  child is tortured for having a disability, what happens? No one listens, and when someone DOES (as in the case of James Jones’ daughter) they are arrested for standing up to the perpetrators.  And the parents of the child are usually advised to transfer their kid to a new school.

I remember being bullied all through my school years.  Every day from 2nd grade up through college.  Kids chanting songs calling me derogatory names. Boys calling me a slut because I was more  developed then other girls my age. Sexual harassment on the middle school bus. Kids pushing each other into me. Spitting at me. Throwing sodas out of car windows as I was walking down the street. I still feel the pain today, though I have been out of school for 15 years. I suspect that I developed Borderline personality disorder as a direct result of the torment I went through as a child.I remember cutting myself over and over again to attempt to relieve the psychological trauma caused by my bullies. I begged my parents to transfer me to a new school, believing that somehow, things would get better in a new environment. I cannot even begin to tell you the number of times that I sat at home crying, contemplating killing myself to escape from my torment.Problem is, if I decided to kill myself, I realized, the bullies would have won. They would all show up at my funeral, and pretend that they really cared. They would cry and go to the therapist that is usually offered to the student body of the school when kids kill  themselves They would go on and on about how special I was, how much I would be missed. And they would NEVER admit their complicity in my death. Nope. Instead, the would play the role of the victim, mourning after the death of a “friend”.

At Mentor High School in Ohio, four students committed suicide in a two year period due to excessive bullying. Were the students at the school encouraged to stop their abuse after reflecting upon the tragic death of these students? Not at all. In fact, at the funeral of Sladjana Vidovic, who was relentlessly tortured because of her thick accent, two of the girls who had been perpetrators looked in her casket and laughed! Other students simply blamed the situation on a few bad apples. Yet FOUR STUDENTS in the span of only TWO YEARS were traumatized so severely that they felt their only choice was to take their own lives. That indicates a systemic problem that should have been addressed long ago.

Bullying is NOT child’s play. It is NOT as simple as “every child is teased”. Every child may be teased at some point in their life, but there are usually a “chosen few” in each school who are targeted for excessive bullying. Day in and day out these children who are seen as “different” or “weaker” suffer from abuse at the hands of their peers. And no one does anything about it until someone ends up dead. Then all of a sudden, for a few weeks, ending bullying becomes top priority for every school administrator in the country. And as soon as the memory of the deceased victim passes, so do the anti-bullying efforts.

I have heard comment after comment by adults who SHOULD know better that being bullied is just “part of being a kid”. They neglect to recognize the seriousness of bullying behavior. In fact, it is often encouraged. How many of us have seen bumper stickers proclaiming “My kid BEAT UP your honor student”?

The Blame the Victim mentality comes out in full force when the topic of bullying comes up. Instead of children being taught to respect each other, kids are taught to conform in order to stop being bullied. Bullied because you are fat? Lose weight. Bullied because you are gay? You should have stayed in the closet. Bullied because you dress differently then other kids? Tell your parents to buy you some new clothes.

Rarely are kids told to accept other children. Instead, they are encouraged to conform to a certain societal ideal, and they carry that into their every day interactions with others. After all, if a child’s parents are encouraging him to do whatever he can to become one of the “in” crowd, he is going to begin to show disdain for other children who do not conform. He will bully other children, feeling that people forced HIM to assimilate, so he needs to do the same to others. The powerlessness that comes from being forced to be like every one else develops into anger towards children who dare to be different. And bullying begins.

Kids killing themselves as a result of being bullied is NOT going to solve the problem. A total overhaul in the school system is needed. We cannot as a society ONLY fight bullying after a child dies. The issue of bullying needs to be addressed on a regular basis in schools. Teachers need to take the complaints of victims seriously, instead of advising them to “change” themselves. There needs to be consequences for bullying.

And parents need to teach their kids to respect each other. If every parent who cares about the issue teaches THEIR child to take a stand when they see another child being bullied, the severity of the problem will lessen. If 10 % of kids are bullies and 10% are victims (not accurate numbers, just an estimate) then the other 80% of kids need to be taught that it is their responsibility to call the bullies out for their behavior. Kids need to be taught not to stand idly by, believing it is someone else’s problem. Every member of our society must take responsibility for ending this type of behavior. How many more dead kids will it take before people recognize what needs to be done?