On Sept. 19, news broke of yet another adolescent suicide related to bullying. The boy, Jamey Rodemeyer, was 14 years old and identified alternately as gay or bisexual. He had withstood years of bullying, especially online. Just days after his death, many of the country’s leading experts on bullying convened in Washington for the second annual National Anti-Bullying Summit.
This tragedy, one of more than a dozen similar suicides in the past two years, prompted researchers to ask one simple question again: Why does this keep happening? Despite a major boost in federal funding for anti-bullying programs, a sixfold increase in peer-reviewed research on bullying over the past decade and 47 states with specific anti-bullying legislation, young teens — especially young, gay teens — seem to be taking their lives in greater numbers.
Rodemeyer’s suicide was all the more disturbing because he seemed to have a solid support system. By all accounts, his parents were accepting of his sexuality. His mother told the local news that he seemed to be doing well lately. He had some close, supportive friends. He was seeing a social worker and seemed better able to cope with the children who taunted him.
As recently as early May, he posted a video to writer Dan Savage’s anti-bullying site, It Gets Better. The site is devoted to testimonials from the famous and the not so famous that aim to give hope to kids who are tormented for being different. Rodemeyer’s submission to It Gets Better made it seem more as if he’d made it through the worst of teenage bullying and was now trying to encourage others. “They would taunt me in the hallways, and I felt like I could never escape it,” he said in the flat pitch of a boy whose voice is changing. Looking into the camera, his jittery energy propelling him from screen left to screen right, he changed tacks. “I have so much support from people I don’t even know online — I know that sounds creepy, but they’re so nice and caring, and they don’t ever want me to die.” (From Heathers to Back to the Future: What We Learn From Movie Bullies.)
And yet all that wasn’t enough to keep Rodemeyer from dying. Why? A growing number of education psychologists and childhood-development specialists are beginning to ask whether our approach to anti-bullying education is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of the research. They suggest that the underlying motivations for bullying are a great deal more complicated than what’s addressed in anti-bullying policy: What if bullying is not a cause of poor mental health but is a warning sign that it already exists?
Studies show that kids who are involved in bullying — bullies, victims and a third subgroup of particularly problematic kids who engage in both behaviors and are referred to as bully-victims — are more likely to have started out with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues that predispose them to lashing out and to self-harm.