Can childhood bullying cause mental illness? I am the proud aunt of four nephews and one niece, all age five and under (family gatherings are very lively). The oldest, Desi, has started preschool; but, as a child with sensory processing disorder, is having a hard time. The other children are mean to him–one said he hated him in front of their mothers and the other boy’s mother did nothing. Desi goes into the playhouse and cries when the other children refuse to play with him. It reminds me of my childhood and breaks my heart to see it played out with my special needs nephew. I fear the answer to the question, “Can childhood bullying cause mental illness?” will play out with him.
Why the Answer Is “Yes, Childhood Bullying Can Cause Mental Illness.”
I went to an elite, private, middle school for three years and hated every minute. The kids were cruel, frequently emotionally bullying and sexually harassing to me, occasionally putting hands on me and constantly belittling me. My grades suffered–I almost flunked seventh grade grammar and I’m a writer. My conduct was terrible and got me into therapy that did absolutely no good. Ironically, the school guidance counselor had a poster in the hall that showed a broken animal and read, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can really hurt me.” I seriously considered suicide, with the knowledge of at least one teacher and the guidance counselor, and believe I would have attempted it if I hadn’t transferred to another school.
Sadly, my story is not unique. I ran into one of the teachers a few years ago and in an effort to jog her memory described myself as, “the weird kid everyone provoked and when I went off it was my fault.” She said I needed to be more specific. I also met another student who had total traumatic amnesia of her time there. Childhood bullying definitely leaves scars that manifest both at the time and later in life.
That raises another question–what can we do about childhood bullying?
Are Anti-Bullying and Self-Esteem Programs the Answer?
Based on my experience, anti-bullying and self-esteem programs do not work. The school I attended had both. They did not work because the students did not care if they hurt anyone else’s feelings and had an entitlement mentality, to the point where I heard one student describe a dead student as, “She was popular only because she had cancer and was friends with [popular student].” Unless we teach our kids early on that they should be considerate of others and that they are not entitled to anything, we set the stage for disaster–yes, even as early as middle school.
There are ways we could make these programs work and ensure bullying does not cause mental illness. We need to teach our children empathy. We need to teach our children how to get inside another child’s head. We need our children to ask themselves, “Is this child acting this way due to a disability?,” and, “What can I do to make the world a better place?” For example, my third grade teacher explained that we had a student with special needs in our class and we were not to tease him just because his learning style was different–and we didn’t. We need to teach our children that it is never okay to put someone down–ever. We need to teach our children to look out for the underdog and “if you see something, say something.”
What Else We Need to End Childhood Bullying that Can Cause Mental Illness
We need a zero-tolerance policy for bullying. This does not mean forced apologies that do no one any good. This means intervening in the victim’s life when it’s “just words,” before it becomes worse–because it will get worse if left unchecked. My story has a happy ending: I transferred to a Christian school. The teachers were involved in the lives of the students and everyone knew I could go to a teacher if things got too bad (which I thankfully had to do only once). The students were also better behaved, possibly due to receiving a moral education early on. So even though the Christian school had no self-esteem or anti-bullying programs, it was a better environment for the students. My suicidal thoughts disappeared and my grades improved.
Childhood bullying can cause mental illness and leave lasting scars. We owe it to our children to stop bullying while it’s “just words.” Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can break my soul.