Social and Verbal Bullying and Suicide

October 11, 2013
News Type:  Weekly Spark Research

A study of sixth, ninth, and twelfth grade students in Minnesota studied youth involved in one of three types of social and verbal bullying: those who bully others, are bullied, and are both victim and perpetrator. The authors identified self-injury as "the most powerful risk factor associated with thinking about or attempting suicide" for young people in all the groups. Emotional distress was also found to be a significant risk factor. The most significant protective factor was parent connectedness

The authors suggested that the finding that “a physical examination in the past year was not significantly protective against suicidal thinking or behavior” represented a “missed opportunity” to prevent both suicide risk and bullying, given that more than half their sample had an examination in the 12 months preceding the survey. The study did not include physical or electronic bullying.

Fifty-seven percent of youth responding to the survey were involved in social and verbal bullying. The study compared suicidality among three groups of these young people:

  1) Youth who bullied others but were not victims of bullying (“perpetrators”)

  2) Youth who were victims of bullying but did not bully others (“victims”)

  3) Youth who both bullied others and were victims of bullying (“perpetrator/victims”)

Any involvement in bullying was found to be associated with a higher risk of suicidality. Suicidal thinking or suicidal attempts (during the 12 months prior to the survey) was reported by:

·         38 percent of the perpetrator/victims

·         29 percent of the victims

·         22 percent of the perpetrators

This contrasts markedly with youth who were not involved in bullying. Only 6 percent of uninvolved youth reported suicidal ideation; 1 percent reported suicide attempts.

Young people who reported both frequent victimization and perpetration were at highest risk for suicide. Twenty-six percent reported suicidal ideation; 11 percent reported a suicide attempt.  Of frequent victims, 22 percent reported suicidal ideation; 7 percent reported a suicide attempt. Of frequent perpetrators, 17 percent reported suicidal ideation; 5 percent reported a suicide attempt.

Girls, young people living in a home without two biological parents, non-white youth, and young people who received free or reduced-price lunch in schools were significantly more at risk for suicidal behaviors in all three bullying categories.

Borowsky, I., Taliaferro, L., & McMorris, B. (2013). Suicidal thinking and behavior among youth involved in verbal and social bullying: Risk and protective factors. Journal of Adolescent Health 53(1) Suppl., S4-S12

This is the third of four summaries of articles that appeared in a special supplement to the Journal of Adolescent Health on the issue of bullying and suicide, published in July 2013. The supplement can be downloaded at no cost from the ScienceDirect website

Resource Note

SPRC’s Suicide and Bullying Issue Brief examines the relationship between suicide and bullying among children and adolescents, with special attention to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. It also explores strategies for preventing these problems. This short publication can be downloaded at http://www.sprc.org/library/Suicide_Bullying_Issue_Brief.pdf.

Populations:  Children Ages 12 and Younger, Adolescents
About Suicide:  Risk and Protective Factors