What You Need to Know About Mental Health & Bullying Awareness

The school year is in full swing with curriculum, homework, and special events. In the midst of focusing on academics and sporting events, a major component that should not be overlooked is student’s mental health.  Even though there is a growing awareness of mental health, there is still ignorance and misunderstanding surrounding mental health and social factors that can affect it. One of the many social factors that can affect a student’s mental health is bullying.

Bullying is considered repeated aggressive behavior with intent to harm another person which involves a power imbalance (Hase, Goldberg, Smith, Stuck & Campain, 2015). For youth, this traditional form of bullying is commonly displayed in the school setting. However, with the booming digital world, bullying is not only limited to the school setting but has expanded to the cyberworld. Cyberbullying is defined as bullying using electronic venues (Hase et al., 2015) and has made bullying easier as by using digital sources such as social media, e-mail, websites, and text messaging, makes it easier to intentionally harm others even if they would not normally do so in a traditional setting.

For young people, bullying is a major health problem for all those involved. Mental health problems may be associated with deficits in their social, academic, and physical achievements (Murshid, 2017). They are at a higher risk of mental health problems during childhood (Landstedt & Persson, 2014) such as:

  • Psychosomatic symptoms
  • Depression
  • Attempted or actual suicide

Even though bullying commonly occurs during childhood, the impact can last well into adulthood. Victims of childhood bullying and youth who bullied have a higher risk of developing mental health problems later in life (Murshid, 2017). Mental health functioning should be assessed as early as possible and over time for youth involved in bullying as early intervention is necessary to minimize mental health issues later in life.

Currently mental health education is not a mandatory aspect of all schools, however teachers and administrators can work to promote awareness with their students. Mental health and bullying awareness are important issues for all educators as they are often the first line of defense for their students at school. As the world continued to gain a better understanding of mental health and social factors that can affect it such as bullying, teachers and students should be provided with ways to recognize signs of bullying and mental health problems, and there should be opportunities around the awareness and management of these signs.

References

Murshid, N. (2017). Bullying victimization and mental health outcomes of adolescents in Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Children and Youth Services Review76, 163-169. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.03.003

Landstedt, E., & Persson, S. (2014). Bullying, cyberbullying, and mental health in young people. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health42(4), 393-399. doi: 10.1177/1403494814525004

Hase, C., Goldberg, S., Smith, D., Stuck, A., & Campain, J. (2015). Impacts of traditional bullying and cyberbullying on the mental health of middle school and high school students. Psychology in The Schools52(6), 607-617. doi: 10.1002/pits.21841

Bullying Interventions

By: Christina Whalen, PhD, BCBA-D
Director of Research

School-wide bullying programs can decrease bullying incidents by about 25% or more (McCallion & Feder, 2013). There are four primary roles in bullying incidents – the bully, the followers, the target, and the bystanders. The bully or bullies are the students that are engaging in the bullying behaviors and the followers are the students who go along with the bullies or support the bullying behaviors. The target is the student or students who are being bullied and the bystanders, which are most students, are the ones who are nearby when the incident occurs or are aware of the bullying incidents but not directly involved.

Research shows that the most effective way to stop a bully is when a bystander intervenes. This can decrease bullying incidents by about 50% (Davis & Nixon, 2010). Bystanders should not confront the bully; rather, they should interact with the target in a positive way and remove the target from the situation. For instance, if a bystander observes a student being bullied in the cafeteria, they can give a compliment to the target like, “Nice goal today in soccer; that was great!” While ignoring the bully, they can engage the target and invite the target to come sit with them and their friends in the cafeteria.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) programs have also been shown to decrease bullying incidents. These programs target positive social behaviors that build the necessary skills and coping mechanisms to handle challenges more effectively and ethically. The gold standard for SEL programs is the CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) model which suggests teaching self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and social awareness. Building these skills can improve academic performance and school climate and can reduce behavioral challenges and bullying incidents.

Bullying is not a problem that is specific to school settings. A general shift in our thinking and attitudes is essential to minimize these incidents. Schools should teach staff, parents, administration, and their students how to prevent and respond to bullying. Parents and community members should be aware of red flags that their child is being bullied or is bullying someone and should work with their schools to minimize these incidents. Decreasing bullying not only helps the students who are targets, but also improves the learning environment for all students and helps the student who is engaging in bullying to more effectively manage their behaviors. A more positive school climate also decreases stress and improves staff job satisfaction.

Run, Forrest, Run… Towards Inclusion!

Could inclusive education mean the end of bullying for kids with disabilities?

By Katherine DeCotiis Wiedemann, M.A., BCBA

Kids with disabilities being bullied is nothing new; we’ve seen it portrayed in popular culture for decades. Who could ever forget Forrest Gump being chased by a truck-full of mean-spirited kids, trying desperately to outrun them despite his bulky metal leg-braces? Special needs aren’t always as visible as they were in that scene, but the victimization of people with differences has arguably been around as long as the institution of education. In all realms of life, bullies usually target people who are more passive, anxious, quiet, sensitive, or unusual in some way (Hoover 2003). Unfortunately, in schools, this demographic often includes children who are classified and receive special education services. Many typical features of American schools may have historically exacerbated this divide between the disabled and the non-disabled, particularly the physical and curricular labeling and segregation of children with disabilities, the non-participation of special needs students in mainstream educational and extracurricular activities, and a general lack of understanding and interaction between the two groups.

When Dan Habib’s infant son Samuel was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a ticker of chilling questions scrolled through his brain like a hurricane warning on the nightly news. Would he ever walk? Would he be able to talk? Have a job? Drive a car? Fall in love? Perhaps the most painful unknown was how his peers would treat him. Would he be the target of ridicule in his neighborhood, on the soccer team, in his grade-school classroom? With fear looming heavily, threatening to swallow them whole, Habib and his wife made a choice and never looked back. They committed to including Samuel in every facet of their lives, regardless of what the scope of his disability turned out to be. And they didn’t stop there – eventually, the arms of their crusade reached their friends, members of their community and eventually the school district Samuel entered as a preschooler. The Habibs became diehard advocates for inclusive education, and as a direct result, Samuel flourished. He was placed in general education classes with supports and modifications. A specially made wheelchair and a culture of acceptance allowed him to play baseball on a regular team in elementary school. He scored a role in the school play and read his lines from his augmentative communication device. He went to middle school dances and made the honor roll. By all accounts, Samuel belonged. And he wasn’t the only one who benefitted.

Sadly, not every kid with special needs is as warmly accepted and included as Samuel. Statistics illustrate that in the United States, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers. In one study, nearly 60% of students with special needs reported having been bullied at some point in their lives, compared to only 25% of students in general. Another more recent study indicates that children with disabilities are victimized by bullying at a much higher rate over time than their nondisabled peers. The researchers attributed their findings to the fact that many students with special needs never learn or have the ability to practice the social skills needed to combat bullying as they age. So how can we teach kids with special needs to advocate for themselves? And perhaps even more importantly: how do we go about teaching kids without special needs, acceptance and kindness?

The answer to both questions might be found, at least partially, in inclusive education. The benefits of inclusion for kids with disabilities have been documented in 40 years’ worth of research – higher test scores, increased social interaction, exposure to peer models, access to the general curriculum, and higher levels of motivation. In fact, in those 40 years, no study has ever been published comparing segregation and inclusion that came out in favor of segregation (Jackson 2008). But how does inclusion affect gen-ed kids? Studies are starting to emerge, and it appears that inclusion may have even more of a positive impact on nondisabled peers than on those with disabilities. Kids in integrated classes have daily opportunities to learn and practice tolerance, respect, and kindness. Regular exposure to differences de-stigmatizes kids with special needs and creates a culture of diversity and acceptance. Additionally, gen-ed kids can guide and teach their peers, which fosters within them a sense of accountability and purpose. They are likely to exhibit more developed values and ethics later in life. Of Samuel’s effect on his nondisabled peers, his father notes, “He’s had a tremendous impact on his peers. His peers now see disability as part of the natural diversity of our world (NPR 2014).” Perhaps the most unexpected benefit of inclusion for nondisabled peers lies in the realm of academics; data indicates that general education kids in integrated classrooms perform better on tests and have greater academic outcomes.

It is becoming widely accepted in education that “far-reaching and sustainable bullying prevention is intricately connected to and predicated upon the promotion of equity and inclusion (Safe@School 2013).” Creating a culture of inclusion in schools is not an overnight job, but a quick Google search will demonstrate just how much information is available to those who are willing to consider making the change. There are detailed guides which illustrate the core concepts and features of inclusive education, and outline the steps to take to get there. It may not be an easy task, but in the words of Dan Habib, “If we know it’s going to yield better outcomes for kids with disabilities, it’s the only way to go forward (NPR 2014).”

Today, Samuel Habib is a 17-year-old junior at Concord High School in New Hampshire. In May of this year, he was the keynote presenter at the 5th annual self-advocacy conference hosted by the University of New Hampshire, where he spoke about his experience with inclusive education and previewed his first short documentary as a filmmaker. For more information on inclusion and Samuel’s journey, please visit www.includingsamuel.com.

REFERENCES

Habib, D. (2014, April 22). Dan Habib: Disabling Segregation [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izkN5vLbnw8

Hoover, J., & Stenhjem, P. (2003, December). Bullying and Teasing of Youth with Disabilities: Creating Positive School Environments for Effective Inclusion. Examining Current Challenges in Secondary Education and Transition, Vol. 2 (Issue 3).

Katz, J., & Mirenda, P. (2002). Including Students with Developmental Disabilities in General Education Classrooms: Educational Benefits. International Journal of Special Education, Vol. 17 (Issue 2), pp. 14-24.

Preventing Bullying, Promoting Equity and Inclusion. (2013). Retrieved from https://www.safeatschool.ca/plm/parents-and-guardians-partners-in-prevention/preventing-bullying-promoting-equity-and-inclusion

Reilly, D. (2017, January 05). The Bullying Culture: What You Must Know. Retrieved from http://www.lifezette.com/momzette/bullying-culture-what-you-must-know/

Staff, N. (2014, April 27). Learning With Disabilities: One Effort To Shake Up The Classroom. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/04/27/307467382/learning-with-disabilities-one-effort-to-shake-up-the-classroom