October is National Bullying Prevention Month, a nation-wide endeavor to put an end to bullying. This issue has overwhelmingly affected our nation's youth -- in 2010, approximately a quarter to a third of all students in middle school and high school reported being bullied.
Some peer groups, such as LGBTQ adolescents, are frequent targets of bullying and, not surprisingly, are at a higher risk for suicide than their heterosexual peers. Awareness of the risk factors and warning signs of suicide as it relates to all adolescents, no matter their sexual orientation, should be at the forefront of our nation's priorities.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teenagers and research indicates that while bullying is not necessarily the direct or only cause of suicide, there's a strong association. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "persistent bullying can lead to or worsen feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion and despair, as well as depression and anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior." The Suicide Prevention Resource Center released important information about bullying and suicide that states both victims and perpetrators of bullying are more at risk for suicide than their peers. Common strategies were identified for bullying and suicide prevention that focus on the school environment, family outreach and obtaining needed mental health services.
Most people are aware of the case involving 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick of Lakeland, Florida, who jumped to her death after reportedly being the recipient of incessant cyber-bullying for a year. Warning signs of Rebecca's suicidal thoughts were likely evident but unnoticed until it was too late. To date, 15 adolescent girls have been indicted for harassing her through social media outlets.
Stories such as Rebecca's are not uncommon, and even more sobering, they often could have been prevented. While every state has implemented anti-bullying programs and legislation, more needs to be done to draw attention to and prevent adolescent suicide. Rebecca's case is yet another example of the tragic consequences of bullying.
Some states have enacted legislation targeted at reducing bullying. For example, Texas legislators, who previously enacted anti-bullying legislation, also passed House Bill 1386 that requires all Texas schools to incorporate suicide prevention into campus improvement plans and to designate a suicide prevention liaison at every school. Texas' legislation should serve as a model for all states to emulate.
Closer to home, in 2008, the Florida legislature enacted the "Jeffrey Johnson Stand Up for All Students Act." This law, named for a Florida student who took his life with bullying believed to be the most significant factor in his death, strictly prohibits bullying and harassment of any student or employee of a public K-12 educational institution.
While bullying prevention is certainly an important measure, it neglects the needs of potential victims of suicide. We need more programming to prevent suicide, which is quite clearly a risk factor for those who are bullied.
Efforts like Nova Southeastern University's Office of Suicide and Violence Prevention, created in 2007, can support crisis prevention efforts and focus on suicide prevention. Towards a goal of reaching the entire University community, our team has developed presentations for students, faculty, and staff to provide education on suicide and violence prevention.
Bullying is a national epidemic where everyone -- students, teachers, parents, lawmakers and the community at large -- must come together in order to successfully address it and help prevent more tragic incidents from taking place. We owe that to our youth.