Wednesday , December 11 2019

Op-ed: The warning signs of bullying

We know that one-in-four young Australian students experience some sort of bullying.

Bullying can take place anywhere, at any time, and with the rise of social media it is now occurring online too. Young people who have unfortunately experienced bullying can feel a range of emotions that can put a strain on their mental health. There may be mental health impacts for those carrying out bullying behaviours, those experiencing the bullying, and bystanders of bullying.

This article was originally featured in our Term 2 print issue. Click here to read the whole magazine. 

Bullying can increase the risk of developing mental health problems for everyone involved, particularly those experiencing bullying. It can increase the risk that someone will develop depression and anxiety in the future.

Sadly, it can also increase the risk of self-harm, suicidal thinking and suicide. It’s important that teachers and educators are aware that there are many forms of bullying which can include:

  1. Verbal bullying (e.g. putting someone down or threatening to cause harm).
  2. Physical bullying (e.g. contact that hurts someone or breaks their things).
  3. Social bullying (e.g. spreading rumours, excluding someone, embarrassing someone in public).
  4. Cyber bullying (e.g. sending harmful messages, pictures or making comments on social networking sites, like Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat). This type of bullying can be anonymous and posted online where it can be seen by lots of people and can go on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so people don’t get a rest from it.

Childhood and adolescence is a time of rapid social, emotional, and physical development and change. Results from Mission Australia’s 2017 Youth Survey revealed that issues which young people felt either ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ concerned about are:

  • Coping with stress: 48.6 percent.
  • School or study problems: 38.3 percent.
  • Body image: 33.3 percent.
  • Depression: 24.6 percent.
  • Family conflict 21.3 percent.
  • Personal safety: 17 percent.
  • Bullying/emotional abuse: 16.5 percent.

The results also showed that girls (18.4 percent) were more likely to name bullying as an issue of concern, compared to boys (11.7 percent). Other issues named as concerns in 2017, such as equity and discrimination (27.3 percent), mental health (33.7 percent) and LGBTI issues (7.1 percent) may also include aspects of bullying. Providing and promoting a range of avenues for students to discuss and seek help for the issues concerning them is an important, practical way schools can support the mental health and wellbeing of their students. It’s important that schools prevent and respond to bullying in the context of a whole school approach.

What are the warning signs that a child or young person may be experiencing bullying?

  • Noticing changes in how someone is feeling and thinking.
  • Expressing things have changed or aren’t quite right.
  • Refusal to attend school or class and increases to non-attendance.
  • Noticeable feelings of anxiousness or distress.
  • Changes in the way they function or carry out day-to-day life.
  • Not enjoying, or not wanting to be involved in things that they would normally enjoy. 
  • Changes in appetite or sleeping patterns. 
  • Being easily irritated or having problems with friends and family for no reason.
  • Noticeable change in performance at school.
  • Being involved in risky behaviour.
  • Feeling sad or ‘down’ or crying for no apparent reason.
  • Having trouble concentrating or remembering things.
  • Having negative, distressing, bizarre or unusual thoughts. 
  • Feeling unusually stressed or worried.

Children and young people experiencing bullying, including conflict, verbal abuse, exclusion, isolation, threats, or physical violence often need professional support. Encouraging help-seeking, and demonstrating empathy, mutual respect and positive relationships is crucial. Being informed, teaching help-seeking behaviours and empowerment is proven to reduce vulnerability to harm before it happens.

What can schools do to prevent or respond to bullying and promote respect relationships and behaviours?

It’s important for children, young people, families, and school communities to have access to resources, strategies, and counselling services to deal with face-to-face bullying

It’s important for children, young people, families, and school communities to have access to resources, strategies, and counselling services for managing cyber bullying

Guiding questions for schools to prevent and respond to bullying and safety issues and promote respectful relationships:

  • What policies and frameworks do we have?
  • What professional learning or training is needed?
  • How do we connect, engage, partner with, and skill build families?
  • What internal strategies and programs do we have?
  • What external support, strategies, services do we have?
  • What stakeholders and partners should we consider?
  • What evidence of good practice do we have?

Counselling support:

It’s important, regardless of the issue, that schools have access to counselling and mental health services to reduce risk, promote wellbeing, and allow for early help seeking. Mental health and counselling support to support students can be internal or external to your school.

Guiding questions for your school may include:

  • What internal and external referral processes do you have in place?
  • How does your school go about keeping the family informed and included in the process?
  • Are you clear how risk is escalated at your school and who should be informed?
  • Are your schools processes clinically sound, evidenced based, and cause no further harm?

About Kristen Douglas

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Kristen Douglas is the head of Headspace in Schools, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation. If you or someone you know is struggling, visit headspace.org.au to find your nearest centre or call eheadspace on 1800 650 890. Headspace in schools (in partnership with beyondblue) implements a suicide post-vention service that assists Australian school communities to prepare for, respond to and recover from the death of a student by suicide.

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