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Column: We need to tackle bullying to save young lives

Journalist and researcher Eleanor Fitzsimons argues that Ireland needs a co-ordinated countrywide plan to stamp out bullying as RTE appeals for victims to tell their stories.

Eleanor Fitzsimons

A CASE STUDY carried on the ISPCC website tells the heartbreaking story of Holly, 15.

After being bullied for more than six months at school and on a social networking site she plucked up the courage to contact Childline Online via their One to One instant messaging service to admit that she was finding it hard to cope and feeling really down. Holly was being threatened and called names. She had her hair pulled and her lunch taken and she was feeling really isolated as her former friends no longer really talked to her.

Naturally this systematic abuse, along with the ‘disgusting things’ being said about her on a social networking site, had left her feeling scared, lonely and, as she described it, like a ‘freak’. Her schoolwork was really suffering too. Childline assured Holly that she had a right to be safe and she had a right to tell a trusted adult about what was happening in order to get the support that she needed. She approached a sympathetic teacher and her situation is being dealt with.

What a terrible, tragic waste of potential

Not every child is fortunate enough to find help like this. In the most extreme cases a young person who is suffering at the hands of bullies may feel that they have no option but to end their lives. What a terrible, tragic waste of potential that is.

The UNICEF Ireland Changing the Future: Experiencing Youth in Contemporary Ireland report published in April this year confirmed that bullying remains a serious concern for all Irish teenagers. A shameful 55 per cent of respondents were bullied. Though “cyberbullying” was quite common (20 per cent), traditional forms of bullying were most prevalent. Of those who were bullied, 96 per cent were bullied with words and 43 per cent were bullied with actions.

A shocking 24 per cent of those who were physically bullied were beaten up, 33 per cent were attacked, 55 per cent had things thrown at them and 59 per cent had things stolen. It is perhaps even more startling to learn that 21 per cent admitted to having bullied another person, causing heartache and in some cases lasting psychological damage to their peers.

Bullying persists as a problem

Historically, the Irish government has adopted a relatively hands-off approach to tackling bullying in schools and in wider society, issuing guidelines and requiring schools to devise and implement policy on a relatively ad hoc and unsupported basis. As a result some schools implement very effective programmes whilst others do not and bullying persists as a problem.

Professor Mona O’Moore, who established the impressive Anti-Bullying Research & Resource Centre in Trinity College Dublin, professes herself to be exasperated by the lack of government support in this area and has been campaigning for more involvement and a coordinated programme for many years. She feels that slow progress is being made and that we are merely “chipping away” at the problem slowly. However, the recent change of government offers hope and there is a commitment in the Programme for Government to tackle bullying more effectively.

There is hope. Professor O’Moore herself piloted a National Bullying Strategy in Donegal that succeeded in reducing the incidence of victimisation by 20 per cent, and bullying of others by more than 17 per cent. Anti-bullying initiatives do work and she is certain that what is needed is a coordinated programme of external training and support available to all on a national, government sponsored basis.

Whole community approach to bullying

This is the approach adopted in other countries including our nearest neighbours in the UK, where a national anti-bullying week is held annually, and most notably by the award winning KIVA programme in Finland that takes a whole community approach to combating bullying.

Here in Ireland the renowned and trusted psychologist David Coleman has been commissioned by RTE to front a three programme anti-bullying television series to be broadcast early in 2012. David hopes to help young people affected to understand and deal with bullying, by learning coping skills and assertive strategies to rebuild their confidence and self-esteem. He also plans to shine a light on the issue of bullying in Ireland.

If you think your son, daughter or family could benefit from David’s help with bullying then you can email the producers of the programme info@firebrand.ie or email David directly at david@davidcoleman.ie. There is also a Twitter account (@Beat_The_Bully) and a Facebook page.

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About the author:

Eleanor Fitzsimons

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