Content note: suicide, bullying.
The front page headline in the Cambridge News on Friday concerned a situation in which primary school children being taught about bullying were accidentally shown an online video aimed at an older audience, in which a victim of bullying took his own life.
I am, perhaps, less concerned about this than the parents, and more concerned about how the reactions reveal the disconnect between children’s reality and adults’ perceptions or wishes. One parent, quoted at length in the Cambridge News article, spoke from professional experience as, “a GP trained in psychiatry”. Her remarks demonstrate this problem clearly:
“My son came out of school looking distracted. I asked him what was the matter and he said they had watched an anti-bullying video and one of the girls was crying.
“I have worked with suicidal patients and I know that self-harm is rife among teenagers. There have been occurrences of copycat suicides among groups of teens in America.
“This video introduced the idea of suicide to a class of 9-year-olds most of whom had probably not even thought of it as a concept as something that you could or maybe should do in response to bullying. In my other son’s class their anti-bullying video showed a boy telling his teacher. This seemed a more sensible response.”
I think this is a dangerously idealised conception. Perhaps it is true that “most” kids that age haven’t thought about suicide, but the ones who actually are suffering from bullying – there’s quite a strong chance that they have. I don’t talk about my youth much here, but I will reveal a little to make my point: at age 9 I was a victim of bullying, and I seriously thought about suicide. I lay awake at night wondering how to end the suffering, and deciding that logically, I should end my own life.
Obviously, I didn’t follow through on that plan, but I was alone, isolated, and had no one to talk to me seriously about those thoughts – no one saying that it’s a serious and real thing and that the bullies are responsible for the torment. Because adults assume that children are too young to hear about suicide, to talk about suffering or desperation to that extent.
This failure to engage, supposedly intended to protect our poor innocent darlings, merely leaves them exposed and imperilled by the storms of their emotions and the viciousness of their peers (who are committing emotional, and sometimes physical, abuse – it’s just because they’re children we call it bullying and diminish the harms they can do).
While the context and analysis was undoubtedly lacking, and certainly not pitched at a level for 9 year olds to learn from the video, the idea that we shouldn’t touch these topics at all is dangerous and potentially deadly.
The doctor whom the Cambridge News quotes at such length cites evidence of copycat suicides from the US, and claims to have worked with suicidal patients. But surely the best thing is to head off the problem, and put those emotions and traumas in the open, in the field of things we can talk about, and which it is safe for victims of bullying to say honestly to those who can help?
Yes, it’s a problem that this video was shown in an unplanned and unprepared context and classroom. But nuance is everything: that this was a problem should not be used to say that children don’t have suicidal thoughts, because they do. And it should not be used to say “don’t talk about this at all”, because that just leaves those suicidal kids abandoned and without support.