Young children can feel the pain too (Content Note: Suicide, Bullying)

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.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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3 Responses to Young children can feel the pain too (Content Note: Suicide, Bullying)

  1. jemima2013 says:

    God help us if a Gp believes copycat suicides exist (they dont, its late I can get u citations tomorrow) its one of my major objections to the line the samaritans take, which was paternalistic towards people with MH difficulties long before samaritans radar. There is no evidence that knowledge of suicide or methods increases deaths from suicides. Many members of the psychiatric and therapeutic communities have tried to challenge the hetrodoxy on this, since the stranglehold the samaritans has means mainstream media takes a very unhelpful stigmatizing attitude.

    And of course young children think about suicide, they may not fully understand the finality, but there is a very good argument that neither do adults, thankk you for sharing something so personal, we can, as adults only help children if we reach out, without prejudice and talk honestly.

    • ValeryNorth says:

      Thanks for the input, and I felt the emotive impact of my own case might help put the case more persuasively!

      Interesting about the copycat thing – I had a feeling the idea was suspect all along (I’ve even seen it mentioned, I think, in New Scientist, although by some researchers who had a POV to push, so perhaps that’s why I was suspicious).

      The way that GP’s comments come across definitely seems to go to the “a little knowledge [training] is a dangerous thing” adage.

  2. Totally agree that very young children can think about suicide and in extreme situations even attempt it (eg the 7 year-old from the case in the news at the moment who was starved and neglected by her mother and sexually abused by her mother’s clients). A friend of mine described being suicidal from the age of 7 or 8 due to worries about his sexuality and general unhappiness.

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