Ten-year-old Ashawnty Davis had high hopes for her future, including dreams of joining the WNBA as a professional basketball star. 13-year-old Rosalie Avila had big dreams too, and told her parents she wanted to grow up to be a lawyer to make the world a better place. Nobody would have expected that these two girls would tragically pass away this December by taking their own lives.
In both cases, the devastating events involved humiliating videos of the girls that were posted online and circulated among their classmates. According to their families, the online and offline bullying that their young daughters faced was overwhelming.
Sadly, these are not the only two cases of their kind. Bullying is happening to kids and teens of all ages.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, nearly half of students in grades 4-12 have experienced bullying at least once in the past month. Earlier this year, 8-year-old Gabriel Taye took his own life after a 24 minute video of him being bullied and assaulted was posted online. Last year, 18-year-old Brandy Vela took her own life in front of her family after being terrorized by disparaging comments about her weight on social media.
As of 2016, suicide has become the second leading cause of death for teenagers, and the highest growing rate is among young girls aged 10-14, like Ashawnty and Rosalie.
And while not all instances of bullying result in suicide, bullying can lead to suicidal ideation, especially among those already suffering from mental illness.
Given that 1 in 5 children exhibit signs of mental illness, this means that bullying can have fatal repercussions for millions of kids.
At a time when we need to take bullying more seriously than ever, that effort has been entirely undermined by a President who has come to be known as the Bully-in-Chief. Trump has been unafraid of using racist and sexist slurs to attack his opponents, both in person and online. He has even encouraged his supporters to use violence to silence those who disagree with him.
This has real-world effects on young people. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes towards immigrants, racial minorities, women and girls, and LGBTQ students increased after Trump’s election, with the largest number occurring on university campuses, as well as in K-12 schools.
What makes the problem even more insidious is that students from marginalized backgrounds are already less likely to have access to the mental health services they may need. And it’s not just students who are being bullied that need those services, but also kids who are doing the bullying. Right now, neither group of young people seems to be getting the counseling they need — and especially not black and Latino students, who are more likely to end up in the prison system than to receive mental health help, according to one study by Physicians for a National Health Program.
“Minority kids don’t get help when they’re in trouble,” said Dr. Woolhandler, one of the authors of the study. “Instead they get expelled or jailed. But punishing people for mental illness or addiction is both inhumane and ineffective. The lack of care for minority youth is the real crime.”
Experts agree that fighting bullying starts with changing what educators refer to as “school climate,” or the social norms and values of a school.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project provides free resources to help teachers create classrooms where all students are “respected, valued, and welcome participants.” to help discourage and diminish bullying.
In a 2011 press release for Soul Shoppe, an organization that helps elementary and middle school teachers create bully-free classrooms, Director Vicki Abadesco said, “For schools, the answer is a long-term commitment and plan by the entire school community for safety and inclusion.”
But in order for anti-bullying efforts to be successful, they must happen alongside the fight against mental health stigma.
Activists, including activists in communities of color, have long been committed to bringing attention to mental health issues. Activist Dior Vargas has created a wide-reaching photo project chronicling the experiences of people of color who struggle with mental illness.
Young Adult novelist Erika Sanchez told Univision News that, as a kid, she felt like her mental illness conflicted with her parents’ cultural expectations. “I felt like I wasn’t this version of an ideal Mexican daughter that they expected,” she said.
In California, where there has been a statewide effort to decrease mental health stigma as a result of legislation passed in 2004, organization Mental Health Matters developed an innovative curriculum for sixth graders that effectively reduces health stigma. If implemented nationally, such curricula can help students feel safer when seeking help. That, paired with increased access to health services for all communities, can help save the lives of countless young people.
Cyberbullying may sound like a relatively new term, but the taunting and ostracizing that can lead students to take their own lives have been around for ages. By increasing awareness about how prevalent it really is, we can help children and teens receive the services they need before it’s too late.