Bullying affects mental health

In 2014, the world was shocked by the story of Emilie Olsen, a 13-year-old girl in the US who killed herself as a result of years of alleged bullying.

Her family brought a lawsuit against the school district, various administrators and her alleged bullies, in a bid to hold the school accountable.

After the lawsuit was filed, more parents came forward with additional reports of their children undergoing the same fate, only for the school administrators to release a statement denying that bullying had ever occurred and that they were not aware of reports either.

This was disputed by emails, school reports and social media accounts. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, two administrators including the principal resigned citing personal reasons. The account of Emilie’s cruel, relentless bullying and the depression and suicide that eventually followed reads like a horror story.

I have been following the recent conversation around bullying in schools. While there is a decent amount of shock from most Kenyans, one of the most flawed arguments is that bullying is normal and meant to toughen our children. What is disturbing though, is the continuous denial on the part of the school’s administrators.

And while the Alliance story has hit the headlines, I think we all know that bullying is not a problem that afflicts only a certain standing or category of schools.

Many people have recounted their brushes with rampant bullying in boarding and non-boarding schools to the point that we have normalized it.

I get it. Most schools rely on portraying a good public image in order to continue attracting students and they are not going to admit to bullying being an inured culture that they have learnt to turn a blind eye towards. However, it remains their responsibility to investigate claims, no matter how seemingly insignificant, get to the truth of the matter and adopt a ‘take no prisoners’ stance in dealing with the perpetrators.

In the instance of Alliance, I recall an incident in 2014 involving a friend’s nephew. When they raised complaints regarding bullying, they were told that the boy was a ‘brat’ with the implication that he should just get over it.

Eventually, the hard decision to transfer him to a different school was made and when the bullying story broke in the mainstream media, my friend felt both sad and validated because for all we know, this could have been her son.

In another instance of a private day school, a relative told me about her young six year old son facing bullying from a few of his classmates.

When she reported to the school, the feeling she got was that the administration was reluctant to address the complaint.

We later discovered that according to the school, decisively confronting the behaviour of the bullies would cause their (the bullies’) parents to possibly transfer them and they did not want to trigger this action.

At this point, I am thoroughly confused. Are we so short-sighted that we would rather create a legacy of damaged personalities in the quest to safeguard our economic interests?

Second, while I do admit that, at least in the reported cases of bullying that we have come across we may not have as dire consequences as in Emilie’s case (at least I have not seen this yet), who are we to classify certain bullying as ‘acceptable’ and the rest as cause for alarm?

One thing I am absolutely sure of is that if we wait for bullying to reach pandemic levels before we take it seriously - and by ‘we’ I mean the collective of parents, school administrators, teachers and the governing boards – it will be entirely too late.

If we need any more convincing, let’s shift our attention to the research that has been conducted over the past couple of years.

In 2013, a study conducted by Duke University Medical Centre found that children don’t ‘easily outgrow the pain of bullying...and that people bullied as children are less mentally healthy as adults.

Bullying creates very long term side effects on the risk for anxiety, depression, suicide, poor performance, low self-esteem and a whole host of outcomes that wreak havoc on adult lives.’

Furthermore, it is not just the bullying victims that have a higher risk of mental health challenges in childhood but the perpetrators as well. Bullies have a higher rate of anxiety, substance abuse, depression and hostility than non-bullies.

The study followed 9, 11 and 13-year-olds into ages 19, 21 and 25. Bullies showed an increased risk of antisocial personality disorders, little empathy and manipulation with increased risk of becoming criminals.

Bully or victims, defined as children who were both bullied and engaged in bullying other kids had five times an increased risk of depression, panic attacks and anxiety.

The study goes on to say that it had not, at the time investigated what makes some children more resilient than others to bounce back after prolonged bullying.

My question though is, are we willing to take the risk that our children may not be resilient enough, or should we nip this behaviour in the bud?