Three sickening words: teens, bullying and suicide

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, th...
English: Bullying on IRFE in March 5, 2007, the first class day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s shocking and depressing that so many young people, struggling with their sexuality, identity, self-confidence and future wonder how they’ll even survive the next few hours — bullied 24/7 by peers whose toxicity is relentless, vicious, heartless and widespread.

Yesterday’s New York Times carried two stories about the aftermath of teens who killed themselves after having been bullied, one about Joe Bell, the father of 15-year-old  Jadin Bell,who committed suicide, who was struck and killed as he walked across the U.S. to draw awareness to the issue, the other about two girls, 12 and 14 (WTH?) arrested in Florida for their behavior after their bullying led to the suicide of Rebecca Ann Sedwick:

In Internet shorthand it began “Yes, ik” — I know — “I bullied Rebecca
nd she killed herself.” The writer concluded that she didn’t care, using
an obscenity to make the point and a heart as a perverse flourish. Five
weeks ago, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a seventh grader in Lakeland in central
Florida, jumped to her death from an abandoned cement factory silo
after enduring a year, on and off, of face-to-face and online bullying.

The Facebook post, Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County said, was so
offensive that he decided to move forward with the arrest immediately
rather than continue to gather evidence. With a probable cause affidavit
in hand, he sent his deputies Monday night to arrest two girls, calling
them the “primary harassers.” The first, a 14-year-old, is the one who
posted the comment Saturday, he said. The second is her friend, and
Rebecca’s former best friend, a 12-year-old.

Both were charged with aggravated stalking, a third-degree felony and will be processed through the juvenile court system.

What on earth is driving these wretched children to torment one another to death?

“As a child, I can remember sticks and stones can break your bones but
words will never hurt you,” the sheriff said. “Today, words stick
because they are printed and they are there forever.”

I’ve blogged about this before and will likely return to it because, as someone badly bullied in high school for three years, I’ve lived this firsthand. It was long before the Internet, so my bullying was only daily, public and within the physical confines of my Toronto high school.

I arrived at my school at 14, reeling from the sudden move into my father’s home after seven years with my mother; arriving halfway through the year into a group of people who had all grown up together in neighborhood schools and a girl both plagued with acne and intellectual confidence.

Bad combo.

I was nicknamed Doglin, barked at in the hallways and a dog biscuit was laid on my desk. Three boys spent a lot of time and energy making sure I was as miserable as they could possibly make me.

Thank heaven for dear friends, male and female, who kept me going. Thank heaven for winning awards for my writing, which buoyed my confidence. Thank heaven for a teen quiz show (then hosted by Jeopardy’s host Alex Trebek) which I competed on two years in a row, taking our school to the semi-finals.

But once bullied, scarred for life.

Here’s my USA Today essay about it.

If you have children you hope to protect from bullying, here’s a link to a free webinar being offered Thursday October 17 at 8pm EST, 5pm PT.

Have you — or you kids — been bullied?

Are you working to prevent teen bullying?

47 thoughts on “Three sickening words: teens, bullying and suicide

  1. Steve

    I’m not really sure what the solution is but I think once again at least a large portion of blame for what seems like an ever more common problem is poor parenting skills. Quite a few homes now require BOTh parents to work now just to make ends meet and kids are left to learn social skills however they can, unfortunately mostly from poor examples they find on MTV or the latest video games where rudeness and bad behavior are rewarded and encouraged. On a more personal note, we as parents were fortunate enough to have y wife a stay atoms mother. We once found out one of my sons was bullying a heavy girl in school and he was “reminded” that that was unacceptable behavior and was “encouraged” to apologize and never allow that to occur again. that same boy was later praised by the faculty in his HS for coming to the defense of a handicapped student that was being bullied by several students ALL bigger than him, but he did it anyways because it was the right thing to do. I’d like to think he was able and WILLING to do the right thing because it was modeled to him at an early age by parents that took the time to be PARENTS. I constantly see these so called adults that should know better but seem to be more interested in being their children’s friend more than their parents. Growing up is tough but it essential to constantly model and DEMAND proper behavior from our children when circumstances arise

    1. Agreed. The behavior of these truly monstrous young women in Florida makes me wonder who the hell is “raising” them and what sort of lessons they are learning.

      I have no doubt your sons were taught to fly right! 🙂

  2. I was bullied terribly in third and fourth grade. In third grade it was horrible boys who made up nasty rumors about me and chased me around every recess. Those boys took away all my good memories of that school and to this day they’re all I remember.
    In fourth grade the bullying started up again…until I got angry. I lashed out and fought back. After a crazy series of parent-teacher conferences, the boys were not asked to return at the end of the year. Meanwhile the bullying subsided and I made friends. Except for the occasional fight, things have been good.
    I’ve talked about my bullying to others. Occasionally people have told me to get over it (including family members) but there’s no getting over being harassed for just simply being different, for existing.
    I’m not over it, but I’m past it. In a way, those guys taught me to be kind and empathetic. I also found one of those bullies some time ago over Facebook, and I forgave him after he asked for forgiveness. In the end, things really do get better. I just wish those poor teens could find that out.

    1. So sorry you endured this. It really does shape you and not necessarily for the better.

      I am always stunned when people minimize bullying as if it were nothing much…sure, until it’s your turn to be loathed and mocked and sneered at in public. Verbal abuse is somehow acceptable (?!) when anyone laying a hand on someone else can (and should be) arrested and charged with assault.

  3. lannah

    Hi Caitlin Thanks for this – I have just skimmed through it and to say it sickens me – understatement of the century. I am a past victim of bullying – my story is attached FYI. Both my daughters were victims, as were many other friends and relatives. Sadly the list is endlesss. And yes I am now and have been for some years, fighting against it. I actually had a book (called ‘Bullseye’) published some years ago, about this. It is a compilation of some thirty six case histories written and submitted by victims of bullying from around Australia – and one from the UK. Legally I had to publish each story as was – I was unable to touch them which does mean they were published unedited so the original spelling, grammar etc remains intact, meaning some are a little more challenging to read than others. More recently, I have set up a blog devoted to this fight. While it has included quite a few completely unrelated posts, some weeks ago I was contacted by an American PR firm, asking if I would be interested in publishing the story of one of their new clients, a model/actress/singer/songwriter who has been bullied and, like so many, is now using her talents to help raise awareness. Meredith’s intro piece and initial interview have since been published and she is currently answering another interview of mine about her recent week of performances in Nashville, along with her two movies which have also just been released. A further dozen or so other ‘new talent’ have since come onboard from that same source and I have also had over one hundred enquiries from other new and not-so-new international talent. Some have been bullied, others haven’t but just see that lending their names and talents to such a worthy cause – is worth it. Anyway, much more to this but, yes, I am a very definite, strong, stubborn, determined and probably extremely painful advocate in the fight against bullying. I have also and continue to do international media interviews about this as well. Just thought you might be interested in this. Have no idea what you would do with it, if anything – but there you go. BestestLannah

    Lannah Sawers-Diggins0411 139 639 http://bullseyeandthefightagainstbullying.com

    Date: Thu, 17 Oct 2013 00:03:29 +0000 To:

  4. Pingback: Just A Thought… | Aurora Morealist

  5. I was also bullied, though we never called it that, and mostly by my brother, who used to beat the crap out of me and verbally abuse me (at home, not at school). My parents really did nothing about it. My brother still thinks it’s just “normal brother/sister stuff” (especially with an older brother), but a) I know it’s not, and b) why should that be normal?

    I was also teased in elementary and junior high because I was different and didn’t like what everyone else liked, but I was really lucky to go to an arts high school (the “Fame” school, in fact) which is a school for outcasts, so I wasn’t teased there. It even helped me to embrace my differences and be proud of who I was. I had a much better than usual high school experience because of that.

  6. Rich

    Those who think that this doesn’t stay with you in some form or fashion for the rest of your life are sadly mistaken. The most bullied often have issues with intimacy and do not take rejection well. It becomes horrible baggage to sort through as one gets older.

  7. I was very unpopular at school, glasses, liked reading books, a bit socially awkward. I struggled with groups of girls being nasty, throwing things at me and refusing to let me sit anywhere for lunch. I am thankful that the internet and social media wasn’t around when i was in high school. And now I can flaunt my amazing career and growing from an ugly duckling into a swan on Facebook to them now.

    It is so sad that such young people are responsible for vicious bullying. I really think it has gotten 10 times worse and I was only in high school 15-20 years ago.

    1. Ouch! So sorry to hear that. Throwing things at you?! That’s insane.

      I wonder how many of us who were bullied are now rocking it professionally (toughened) and how many are screwed up for good. I imagine someone somewhere is doing a study. If not, they should.

      I’m glad you survived it, but sad that you had to. Being “different” seems to terrify some people.

  8. There was one girl in fourth grade who terrorized me. I told my parents – and my mother came to school during first break and gave her an earful. The girl continued, my mother once again came to school during break, gave her another earful – and the bullying stopped.
    Every suicide is one too many. Unfortunately, suicide is still a topic people do not really want to talk or think about. Suicide due to bullying should be classified at least as ‘attempted murder’ by the one who bullies.

    1. Thank heaven your mother stepped in — and it worked. What shocks me every time is that 1) the girl is such a bitch; 2) her parents allow it; 3) the school does nothing. Not impressive.

      I agree. I wrote my first book about women and guns and hoped to bring the fact that 50% of gun deaths are suicide to the foreground, as an issue. No one wanted to touch it.

      1. It is a real pity that so many people turn a blind eye on uncomfortable topics.
        Suicide is an issue. Suicide hurts the relatives, friends, colleagues, and still we fail to see.
        Is your book available as eBook? I will buy it!

      2. Thanks! I checked at Amazon: paperback, only. Malled, however is also available in Kindle format. I bookmarked both books. My definitely-want-to-read-list has two more items, now… 🙂

  9. Thank you very much for highlighting such an important topic. Looking at kids today, I can’t but think that they are often more cruel than adults. This is a very scary phenomenon.

    Although I wasn’t not bullied at school (thank God), I can very much relate to verbal abuse being not taking seriously as well as being discharged as not an abuse at all. However, often verbal abuse can cause much more and much long lasting damage than a physical fight. I also agree that verbal assault should be prosecuted in some way. Unfortunately, I’m afraid this is not possible due to “freedom of speech”, which is, to my mind, also being strongly misused these days. It became “freedom to abuse”, and it seems like one cannot do anything about it.

    1. I think it’s a subject we can’t talk about enough, so thanks for that.

      I see a similar pattern and wonder if (?) the way children now relate to one another (often mostly through technology) makes it so much easier to be incredibly cruel. It’s like killing with a drone…you don’t see the damage.

      I agree. I grew up in a family whose verbal abuse was truly shocking, and forever justified. I had an experience of it just this year and it left me shaking head to toe and took me months to recover. It is appalling stuff and the mark of a true coward — as hitting someone could bring a cop to the door within minutes.

      1. > I grew up in a family whose verbal abuse was truly shocking, and forever justified.

        Same here… Now I think this is just the way they communicate with each other. And apparently, it is not bothering any of them. I, on the contrary, am absolutely unable to deal with it and cannot possibly understand this kind of behavior.

        > I had an experience of it just this year and it left me shaking head to toe and took me months to recover.

        This is what has been happening to me for decades. Unfortunately, one day I saw no other choice than to break the contact completely. Otherwise I’m afraid it could have done serious damage to my life. They seemed not to be bothered by this either. It is me who still cannot get over this. I even tried writing about this ( It helped a bit, but I’m not sure whether it is possible to get over it in general. And this is although I was never seriously physically abused.

        There is still a rhetorical question that keeps bugging me: “Don’t they understand? Why can’t they see what their words are doing to others?”

      2. I can only assume they were raised this way as well so it seems normal to them. I know that’s true for one of them in my family. It hardly excuses it — therapy!

        It makes it hard to a have a family life and no one who has not experienced it can even really understand it.

      3. So true! This shows how important it is for the parents to be good role models. No carrier achievements or money earned can ever be compared to it. How much of consequences can there be, if you screw up in your job? But if you screw up your child the way that he/she thinks verbal abuse is ok, you are responsible of whatever damage your child will do to so many others in the future.

        And indeed, one cannot understand it when one hasn’t experienced it themselves.

  10. I was an outcast my entire schooling life, although I didn’t endure too much bullying, thankfully.

    I have a lot of trouble understanding how people – young and old – can get any satisfaction from making another living thing hurt. I understand that it’s a power trip, and there are a lot of issues faced by those who bully at whatever age, but to feel pleasure when someone takes their own life because of what you did to them?? Really??

    1. It is a terrifying thing to me that a young girl — of 12 or 14 — could delight in another’s suicide. I’m thinking of writing a letter to that sheriff to congratulate him for taking a stand. I wish more law enforcement would do so.

  11. What shocks me is that this problem is being presented regularly by the media as if it’s a new phenomenon. It isn’t. It’s just more visible. That’s really the only change. Text messaging and the internet are the big differences. Otherwise, these things are just the same as what I dealt with in school. Like you said in your last graf, “Lives, and mental health, are at stake.” As a result of the bullying, including some pretty intense physical assaults, I have a great deal of anxiety towards certain social situations. It’s led to me putting up with more than I should from some people as an adult, and it certainly led to poor attendance in school and some pretty poor grades. In elementary and to a lesser extent in high school, I was always looking over my shoulder, hoping that recess would get cancelled and hoping that the teacher wouldn’t call on me while I was trying to prevent the kids around me from making my life hell. It’s rather difficult to concentrate on classwork when one is constantly worried about getting punched in the base of the neck. This is also one of the reasons I hate the term “ginger” to describe a redhead. Being called, “a damned dirty ginger boy” for years sort of leaves its mark, amongst other notable issues that the word is unsavory in my opinion.

    Bullying has always been there. Our parents and the administrations of educational institutions have ALWAYS been out of their league when it comes to addressing the problem. This has been going on for centuries. It just has the lens of the internet on it now.

    Fortunately, there are a lot of tools out there to help us deal with those urges to make the horror go away using drastic measures. I had my sister, who is such an amazing and loving person to support me. I supplemented that with correspondence with authors I respected. I wrote to Piers Anthony multiple times as a kid, and even now occasionally correspond with him, though I try not to pester him too much, he’s a busy man.

    I think that, like many things, we can’t stop global bullying. That isn’t to say that nothing can be done, but rather that we need to each take our piece of the pie and ensure that someone reaches out and reacts strongly and positively when they find out that someone is being bullied. And we need to use common sense. If our children have something about them that may make them a target for bullying, we need to be mindful of that and always have their backs and make sure that they feel that we are always one step back and to the left of them, supporting them and keeping them safe.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience… and sorry to hear what an effect it has had on you. I, too, have been bullied in adult situations — specifically in several workplaces — and I feel like the formerly bullied must have a sign on our backs that everyone else sees…It’s toxic.

      I have no sympathy for school administrators or teachers who see and hear bullying but minimize it or ignore it entirely. Kids are not stupid. We look to adults for help and protection and when it’s not given, that leaves a residue of mistrust in their supposed “authority.”

      The problem of the Internet is that, when you and I were bullied as kids or teens, we could (and did) escape to our homes or rooms. Now, unless a kid is removed entirely (as they should be) from social media, the torment is literally non-stop. It is also more widely public in a way that taunts and blows are not.

  12. During my first year of high school, I can’t say I was bullied, but as I was the best student of my class and the whole school, I had very little friends.There were girls who were making fun out of me, criticizing the way I look or I dress, but it never went too far. Students quickly understood the advantage they had to be “friends” with me, and the mocking stopped when I helped some of them getting a good grade.
    Yet, I felt very alone. My parents decided to put me in another school, where I felt much more integrated.
    Since then, I’ve noticed every time I see someone getting mocked around me, I tend to take his/her defense.

    1. Good for you!

      It is so threatening to some people when a person is different from them (or more skilled at something.) It must be some deeply ingrained genetic code from caveman days because the urge to bully them seems so primal and tribal.

      Glad you found a school with a better fit. It was sad and interesting that the minute I arrived at university (U of Toronto, a super-smart school), I had plenty of boyfriends and friends. It felt like a totally different planet and it was the same city. Just a very different group of people in some ways, certainly in what they expected a young woman to be or behave like.

      I have stayed close friends with one of my best high school friends — all these decades later. When I asked her why I’d been bullied so badly, she didn’t hesitate to reply: You were so confident you scared people. That hasn’t changed. 🙂

  13. I was recently asked by a mother whether I would prefer my child to be bullied or a bully. First, I was annoyed by the question, second I immediately responded that if I had to choose I would prefer my child to be bullied, because if my kid were the bully it would be I did something horribly wrong.

    Kids do stupid things, and most kids at some point, for one moment, one sentence bully someone. But the cases that have been coming up in recent years are not just the “kids will be kids” mentality, there is something fundamentally wrong. Obviously (I hope) there are a myriad reasons and causes for bullying. The kids who bully are likely bullied themselves, in the home, by brothers, sisters, parents, or they have not been taught that others have feelings (something we can teach them as babies and on.)

    I dont think there is a specific way we can fix bullying behavior but things that can help would be, I guess the obvious. Talk to your kids about peoples feelings, and talk to your kids about bully’s. If your kid is being bullied make sure to talk to them about what that means, who those people are, and why they might be doing it, hopefully charging them with empathy for the bully (not for the bully’s actions but for what their daily life might be like), rather than self-doubt will limit cases of suicide. Because, people who bully don’t do it for no reason.

    Thanks for writing this,

  14. Great piece, Caitlin. I think about this a lot, having a child in Middle School. I’m always listening and looking for opportunities to encourage speaking up when we someone else wronged. Bullying in school seems dependent partly on the witnesses NOT saying or doing anything.

    1. Thanks! So good to have you comment, too…

      You make an important point. All it takes (and it seems to be too much) is for one or two bystanders to challenge the bully and stand in solidarity — even literally beside them — with the person being bullied. The victim feels scared, angry, ashamed and, most of all, isolated and alone. When no one else seems to care enough about them, it feels even worse that no one ever stands up for them. Yes, it takes courage — but unless you’re about to physically attacked (which happens), what, truly, is the downside of being a morally courageous person?

      Are you (I hope) familiar with the Canadian national anti-bullying movement — started years ago when two guys stood up for the new kid whose pink shirt was being mocked — called Pink Shirt Day? I love it….Mark your calendar, and your child’s — Feb. 26, 2014.

  15. Pingback: Would You–Or Do You–Monitor Your Child’s Digital Activity? | Mindful Stew

    1. Thanks for sharing.

      I actually completely disagree with this ad!

      While workplace bullying is not as blatant as this in the ad, it is very prevalent in the U.S. where workers have almost no hope of legal help or redress beyond a lawsuit and how many of those are effective?

      I’ve been bullied verbally at several NYC workplaces, if not in the more brutal ways shown here. I also find the ad’s focus on a group of middle-aged white men very odd indeed as they are — seems to me? — more likely to be in positions of power where they can bully with impunity (as two did in my vase), instead of the victim being female or a minority with less power.

      1. Very interesting. I would never have looked at it like that. Your experience gives you a more informed perspective. I wonder how much derives from this being a French view?

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