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by Stephen Wallace

An early November black balloon launch in Central Pennsylvania’s Orchard Hills Cemetery marked the one-year anniversary of fourteen-year-old Brandon Bitner’s suicide death. At the same time, it served as a celebration of his life; a celebration based, in part, on the bright light Brandon purposefully brought to the dark intersection of bullying and suicide.

Brandon’s tragic death reminds young people everywhere of the debilitating humiliation bullying begets, an outcome so insufferable that many victims throw in the towel or step in the path of a fast-moving tractor trailer, as Brandon did in the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2010.

Like many suicide victims, Brandon left a note. Unlike many, his was more a mission statement, not only detailing the abuse he suffered at the hands of his classmates but pointing to a path for progress in beating this most insidious of twin tragedies.

Brandon’s was no small contribution, as the U.S. Department of Education reports that bullying at school is a pervasive problem that affects millions every year.

While bullying behavior has become more widely discussed and legislated against, it remains a salient source of anxiety and depression among young people. Warning signs include:

  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Declining school performance
  • Loss of pleasure/interest in social and sports activities
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Changes in weight or appetite
  • Nervousness, agitation or irritability
  • Substance abuse

Normal Conflict or Bullying?
Sure, social conflict is an inevitable part of childhood, and not all such conflict is harmful. Constructive conflict helps children to learn, grow and change for the better. They become more open-minded and tolerant, learning to see things from other perspectives. Destructive conflict, on the other hand, damages relationships, creates bad feelings, and can lead to serious problems.

How do you tell the difference? By recognizing the common forms that bullying, teasing and taunting take.

Common Examples of Bullying
According to the USA National Center for Education Statistics, bullying activity can be broken down into two types, direct and indirect:

  • Direct Bullying (bullying done face-to-face) 
    • Verbal (name calling, put-downs, insults, harassment)
    • Deliberately excluding certain people from groups and activities, or not talking to them
    • Physical (shoves, pushes, hitting, kicking, assault)
    • Psychological (making a mean face, “dirty looks,” threats, coercion and extortion)
  • Indirect Bullying (bullying done behind someone’s back)
    • Gossip (lowering people’s opinions of the victim)
    • Excluding certain people from groups and activities
    • Social aggression (includes things that tend to damage a person’s relationships with others, things like spreading untrue rumors about a person or telling others not to be friends with someone)

Types of Bullies
Most of us are all too familiar with the classic aggressive bully, either from being a witness or a victim. Relational bullies have received less attention but are just as dangerous as they try to gain social status and power through the exclusion and manipulation of others, attempting to destroy a peer’s social standing along the way.

The Effects on Victims
Perhaps not surprising, compared to their peers, kids who are bullied are up to nine times more likely to consider suicide, according to studies conducted at Yale University.

Highlighting the beginning of the 2011 National Suicide Prevention Awareness week in September, SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) chairman Dr. Danna Mauch cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control that list suicide as the third leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds, accounting for the loss of 4,320 young people in 2007, for example.

The Holidays
Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Years are emotionally evocative on many fronts and may trigger bouts of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Indeed, in his book The Emotional Calendar, Harvard University psychiatrist John Sharp points out that environmental, psychological and cultural forces profoundly affect how we feel (holidays are rife with all three). Yet, on his blog, as published in Psychology Today, Sharp offers some help: “It is one thing to worry, feel hopeless, anxious and temporarily unable to carry on with life. Reaching out for help is what makes the critical difference.”

In turn, reaching out to people who need help, people like Brandon Bitner, also makes a critical difference … and is a great reminder of how to save a life.

Stephen Wallace is director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, in Selinsgrove, Pa. He is also senior advisor for policy, research and education for SADD.


The Center for Adolescent Research and Education

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