Health Opinion

Too often, stigma-based bullying ends in suicide

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Australian youth are increasingly diagnosed with anxiety and depression (Image by Amir Hosseini | Unsplash)

The national conversation we need to have is of the grimmest reality — suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia’s teenagers and bullying plays a large part, writes Gerry Georgatos.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide

STIGMA AND bullying are pernicious, pervasive and destructive. Stigma is at the origin of bullying. In understanding this premise, we can begin to go forward in the right direction.

The bullied are not the problem. If being me offends you, then I am not the problem.

The oppressor is at the heart of the problem, the root and the original sin. I’ve often argued that we should stop examining the oppressed and instead examine the oppressor. The oppressed are blameless. For oppressors, the imperative is self-reflection. Everyone is entitled to redemption.

It is more important to treat the bully – not only the bullied – if we are to eliminate bullying. Punishing a bully is often akin to bullying the bully. Does it work?

Often, bullying begins in the home

The family of origin will best serve us all if it is a firmament of fairness, in terms of inclusiveness and equality. If children do not learn about discrimination, then when older, they are more likely to foment and exercise discriminatory misbehaviours.

Stigma-based bullying relies on distinct misbehaviours, such as diminution, favouritism and exclusion. These are precursors to cognitive narrowing, leading to negative behaviours being played out. Punishment reduces the range of cognitive activity in a child’s mind — stigma is demonising.

Family members can turn on one another where love is not equal. The diminished are less resilient to sexual harassment, homophobic epithets and racial slurs. As time passes, the impact of such demonisation becomes cumulative and increasingly hurtful. Seemingly endless hills which need to be climbed appear steeper.

Stigma and bullying are not limited to their fervent rapaciousness in wider society, or in schools and workplaces, or are the works of ideologues alone, including politicians and instruments of the state. Stigma and bullying can be first formed within the firmament of family — the family of origin or close-knit extended families.

Parents can favour some of their children. Prejudice is when people form an opinion before becoming aware of and understanding relevant information. Prejudice can also stir up emotional responses such as fear or anger towards people who are being stigmatised.

I remember a 13-year-old, consigned as the family’s "black sheep", who took her life because she no longer wanted to live. She believed she was less loved and often loathed. She made many attempts to end living.

I remember a 14-year-old, also contaminated with the belief she was the family’s "black sheep". Her siblings turned against her, playing out a parent’s pronounced misjudgements of her child. She ended her life, without any previous warning.

Who among us does not believe love is boundless? It is the greatest fulfilment, you or I or any child can have.

In this illusory world, contemporarily a hard and fast fact is that mental unwellness is on the increase. We know far too many people battling mental illness. The rate of suicide in Australia is increasing and is targeting young lives. Far too many teenage Australians know of teenagers who have died by suicide. It is not just a youth mental health crisis but also an adult mental health crisis.

Untold suffering can lead to mental unwellness

The majority of the strongest people I know are people battling – and many who have beaten – chronic and acute mental illness. Most of these people have endured various forms of bullying, mobbing, invalidations, censorship by omission and voicelessness. But they also comprise the majority of Australia's suicide toll.

Many were at their wit's end, having been blamed lifelong. Their souls, once battlefields, pitted against the misjudgements of others, beginning with family, transformed into minefields of prejudices and cruelties in the wider world.

The grim reality is that there are relatively few turn-to supports. Usually, there are family and friends. While there is living, it is never too late to validate those you have demonised or excluded. It is never too late for particularly family-of-origin members to adjust their conduct — the stillness you can bring to the souls of those you have tumultuously affected is a boundless gift.

Too often, stigma-based bullying ends in suicide

The national conversation we need to have is of the grimmest reality — of suicide as the leading cause of death of Australia’s teenagers.

Australian children and youth are increasingly diagnosed with anxiety and depression. The majority go on to adulthood battling them. I remember far too many young ones and adults describing the memories of wounds, aged so young, where they should have been carefree.

Those battling mental unwellness and living with socioeconomic struggles are less likely to access support — mostly because they cannot afford it. The lowest quintile of income base comprises the most significant proportion of Australia’s suicides.

The wellspring of the soul must be filled by the undivided love of family so that the murmurs of the wider world – cruelties and wickedness – can be offset. Setting a loving example can be our greatest legacy. We continue to exist in our children, their children and also with friends.

The bully cannot bully someone who cannot be bullied. One should not punish where love can do better. One should not criticise where love can do better.

The breadth of literature on the connection between stigma and mental illness is now indisputable.

Stigma breeds a dark, damp mural of cognitive and psychiatric disorders. It breeds a hypersensitivity to the opinions of others of oneself. Hence, follows toxic and divisive feelings of shame, embarrassment and low self-esteem. These lead to secrecy, social withdrawal and, for many, alcohol or drug misuse.

To be misunderstood lifelong is to be blamed lifelong.

The grim reality of suicide in Australia

In Australia, suicide is a leading cause of death. In 2019, suicide accounted for two in five deaths among people aged 15-17 years (40 per cent) and more than one in three among those aged 18-24 years (36 per cent). Understanding suicide prevention should be among the nation’s most pressing issues.

Identifying trauma starts with behavioural observations and proceeds with the opportunity for individuals to tell their story — even if that story is fractured from disordered thinking. People need people.

Our capacity to listen is an imperative determinant of wellbeing. It must be achieved without judgment, for often redemption is needed: forgiveness in addition to sympathy and empathy.

In the last decade, I have written more than 500 articles on Australia's suicide crisis and suicide prevention. Until my recent retirement, I supported hundreds of suicide-affected families and thousands of critically vulnerable individuals.

I remember the screams and outpourings of suicide-affected families. I remember children lost to suicide as young as nine. We need to lead with listening, civility, courtesy and kindness.

We should hear and read the stories of those lost, so others aren’t. Let us be fearless in telling these stories, for in the telling of such stories, better ways forward will be reinforced.

What makes for unhappiness and happiness needs to be understood. Human beings are inherently courageous. Society can be muddled-minded and get in the way of its collective best self and community reckoning.

Understanding one another, contextualising, understanding unfairness, helping others and being there are profound steps. 

Child suicide rates are the highest they have ever been and we know bullying is a factor in at least a quarter of them. Child sexual abuse is an abomination prominent in many of these suicides.

I remember a father who found his son hours after his suicide. The father lay his son down and cradled his body through the night until responders arrived in the morning.

I remember the distraught family of a young man who only a week before his suicide had run into a burning house and rescued a young mother and her baby.

Let us understand one another, equally.

If you would like to speak to someone about suicide you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He is the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP). You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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