Bullying deserves attention as a serious public health issue

Bullying is a public health issue involving behaviors that can have serious and long-term health impacts for those who are victims, bullies, bully-victims and witnesses.

Shortly after the tragedy of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, a study was commissioned by the Colorado Trust and the Families and Work Institute to ask young people their thoughts about ways to stop the violence affecting their lives. A primary finding of this survey, which involved students in grades 5 to 12, was the high level of emotional violence they reported experiencing or witnessing. The survey findings showed that mean-spirited and harmful bullying behaviors like hurtful teasing, gossiping and intentional exclusion were common and often the result of victims not fitting into a culture of “sameness.” The young people surveyed were clear in wanting the adults in their lives to take all forms of aggression and violence seriously – including emotional violence.

Over the past decade, researchers and educators have expanded the ways in which they describe bullying, using categories such as physical, emotional, relational, social, verbal, direct and indirect, and cyber bullying to capture a variety of behaviors. No matter what definitions and categories are used, it has become more and more evident that bullying behaviors can have serious consequences for many of those involved. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has described bullying as a public health issue with many kinds of short- and long-term impacts.

While physical violence can result in immediate injuries to a person who is targeted, bullying of all kinds can seriously compromise a young person’s ongoing sense of safety and security. Youth who are victimized are at increased risk for mental health problems including depression, anxiety and psychosomatic complaints. Those who bully others are at increased risk for problems such as substance use and continued use of violence into adulthood, particularly when bullying behaviors and underlying issues go unchallenged and untreated. It’s not surprising that youth who are described as “bully-victims” are most at risk for these kinds of mental health and behavior problems. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, given connections between bullying, depression and suicide, both victims and perpetrators of bullying are at a higher risk for suicide than their peers, and those who are described as “bully-victims” are at highest risk. Health impacts of aggressive behaviors don’t end with those who are immediately involved, however. Studies have shown that witnessing the victimization of others may contribute to the mental health risks of bystanders as well, including feelings of heightened anxiety around their own vulnerabilities.

These kinds of short- and long-term impacts on the health and well-being of young people highlight the importance of creating settings that provide safety, security, positive norms and opportunities for developing healthy relationships. To help address issues of bullying within the multiple kinds of settings where young people live, learn and play, MSU Extension is currently developing an initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Fair and Affirming Environments. The goals of Be SAFE are to address and reduce bullying behaviors in youth settings, prevent bullying behaviors by tapping the wisdom and assets of youth and adults and develop positive relationships with peers and adults. For more information about Be SAFE, contact Janet Olsen or Karen Pace of MSU Extension.

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