“suicide because of bullying”

My Facebook feed recently included a story about a teenager who died by suicide. There is a photo of this great-looking kid, and link to a Go Fund Me page for his funeral expenses. The Facebook post says he “took his life because he was bullied for being gay.” Notably, in an early interview, his mother downplayed the role of bullying in her son’s death. She said it couldn’t have helped him, but she declined to attribute this death to bullying. She focused on the fact that her son had struggled with depression for a long time and was under treatment for depression.

This tragic story illustrates a number of extremely serious problems. First, we are in a national crisis–an ACTUAL one– because of rising suicide rates. They are up in almost all demographics including teenagers. There is no doubt that LGBTQ youth have higher rates than non-LGBTQ youth, but rising suicide rates are sparing no demographic.

We’ve become increasingly aware of the problem of bullying, in general and, of course, the vulnerability to LGBTQ individuals to bullying. There’s then the ongoing concern that even with progress toward accepting LGBTQ people, there’s still so far to go.

But I have to also express my concerns about the trend toward people stating flatly that a person died by suicide because they were bullied. Suicide is complex in the aggregate and each individual case is complex. It usually is the result of converging internal, external, and interpersonal factors. Anytime one says that a person killed himself or herself for a specific reason, that is an incomplete story. That said, there’s never been any doubt in my mind that bullying is sometimes a cause of the psychological factors that can lead to suicide, and is sometimes a trigger for suicide attempts and death by suicide.

That said, there is no reason to conclude that most teenagers who die by suicide have been bullied, or that most teenagers who are bullied die by suicide.

My worry comes from noting in recent years that when a minor dies by suicide, within hours, social media and news reports talk about reports of bullying. My fear is that there is now a kind of cultural template: If a minor dies by suicide, it MUST have been because they were bullied. But it is fair to ask whether those social media posts and news stories are accurate? We know that people are willing to make all kinds of statements and pass on all kinds of rumors that aren’t true. Social media is full of people commenting freely about things they know nothing about. And if a news outlet quotes others as having heard the child was bullied, that doesn’t mean they were, nor does it mean that was *the cause*of the suicide. If a classmate or parent says to a reporter “She was bullied!” it could be because that person witnessed bullying. Or it could be that they are essentially saying, “She killed herself, so she was bullied.”

Good comes from the awareness of how harmful bullying can be, including that it could be a contributor to suicide. But there are downsides to assuming, without evidence, that a specific suicide is the result of bullying. 

These stories almost always include an element that the school was aware of the bullying and didn’t do anything about it. In effect, schools are blamed for the suicides of their students. I’m not saying that schools don’t sometimes fail to respond well to bullying. I am saying that responding well to bullying is far more difficult and complicated than people know. It isn’t fair to make those accusations of schools without evidence. People talking about it in the wake of a suicide may be weak evidence.

When someone says they believe a child killed himself or herself because of bullying, they should recognize that is an accusation against people–an accusation that they, in effect, caused a young person’s death. Suppose a group of kids did mistreat a peer who went on to die by suicide. Even if we know that the victim was bullied, we cannot know the extent to which that contributed to the suicide, if at all. That accusation can do real harm to those accused young people. We should similarly be concerned by adding to unverified accusations that school officials knew about the bullying and “didn’t do anything about it.”

More concerning to me is that if we believe the problem of teen suicide can be reduced to a specific cause, like bullying, then we are going to devote all the way-too-limited resources to trying to stop suicide by fighting bullying. I know this to be true: Teenagers get can get mental illnesses. They can develop episodes of clinical depression, for example. There doesn’t have to be an identifiable reason that any of us get depressed. But when we get certain mental illnesses, we then are at increased risk to die by suicide. Having mental illness or emotional or behavioral problems also makes us more prone to be bullied AND make us more susceptible to self-harm, which adds to how complicated these matters are. Knowing that is true, we know that we cannot address the problem of youth suicide without going about the very expensive business of getting our youth the mental health screening, evaluations, and treatment they need.

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