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How much does cyberbullying really contribute to teen suicide?

The government has been focusing its attention on cyberbullying after high profile teen suicides but one clinical psychologist who works with troubled teens said it rarely contributes significantly.

Image: cyberbulying image via Shutterstock.com

THE FOUNDER OF the National Centre for Youth Mental Health in Ireland has said he does not believe cyberbullying has significantly contributed to teen suicides in the last number of years.

Headstrong‘s Tony Bates has views are in contrast with the government’s policy focus on cyberbullying this year, which was a direct response to a number of hight profile teenage suicides. In these cases, the teens’ deaths were linked to abuse they had received on social media websites like Ask.fm but Bates said suicide is not as black and white as this.

“I don’t think it contributes an awful lot – I mean I’m sure of course it does in some way,” he told TheJournal.ie this week. “I got close to one very high profile suicide family in the aftermath of a very young suicide which was blamed entirely on cyberbullying and I can tell you it was very little do do with it. The story was so horrific and so painful – the girl was just 13.”

Bates also spoke at a church in Leitrim to the community that had been impacted by the death of 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley. He was asked if he believed her death had been caused by cyberbullying and when he said he did not, the teen’s mother, who was in the audience stood up to address him.

I thought I was in for it because I didn’t want to say anything to upset her, you know, and she said: Thank you for saying that, I don’t think it was cyberbullying” and everyone agreed.

Nasty comments

Abuse on social media does, of course, have a negative impact on teens, however as Bates explained that what they are ultimately looking for is a secure place in the world where they feel like they fit in.

“So when I go on the net because I can’t make that happen with my family or in the world and I find that people are nasty to me, that’s reinforcing a sense of alienation.”

A survey of 15,000 children found that just 12 to 14% said they had been bullied online. A study in the US came out with similar numbers but Bates said that when teens were asked if they had ever come across nasty comments about them online, they said “all the time”.

You look at almost everything and there’s nasty comments, they get nasty comments sent to them all the time – it’s the internet – and they don’t even realise it’s bloody bullying. That’s what they found out. People say “you’re an ugly bitch”. Well, if that’s coming at you a lot of the time, that’s bullying.

Something that is paramount for teenagers going through a difficult time is having even one adult in the world they can depend on who will listen to them.

End the pain

Bates told the story of his own son, who was bullied in school at 14:

He came in at four in the morning and he asked if he could get in beside me – he was a big guy then, bigger than me. He said: “I couldn’t sleep I had bad dreams”. I thought ‘what’s going on here?’ Your entire career of therapy training foes out the window – you just can’t bring that to your own children. Then he described being very badly bullied, terrified – he was really upset. We acted on that and the school were great but he was very shook by it all and there was a counsellor he went to. They said he was a bit down but it wasn’t so much about the bullying, he was just really lonely and felt like he wasn’t connecting to the other students.

Bates said children who are suicidal think they want to die but what they really want to do is “say FU to life and end the pain”.

“If there’s even one good adult who knows you personally who believes in you, they bestow on you a kind of strength that is unfathomable,” Bates explained.

The clinical psychologist, who worked in St James’ Hospital with mentally ill patients for more than two decades, decided to set up Headstrong when he realised just how much the adolescent years had impacted on the adult patients he was treating. Many told him that if they had received help when they were younger, they knew they would not have ended up in the same situation.

“I worked for a long time with very sick people, very troubled people with severe mental illness and honestly I never met a mad person,” he said. “They were just very human, very insightful. I always found inside these people there was a core of sanity and the sadness they felt for the life they lived – the grief – because they had lost their life.”

Helplines

  • Console 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)

  • Aware 1890 303 302 (depression anxiety)

  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie - (suicide, self-harm, bereavement)

  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)

  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

Read: Dublin fireman will run marathon with child’s weight on his shoulders to highlight teen suicide>

Read: Over 11,000 people ended up in hospital last year after self-harming>

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