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Opening Arguments

Bully pulpit

Poynter explores a case of journalistic malpractice:

All suicides are tragic and complicated. And teen suicides are particularly devastating because as adults we recognize all that lost potential.

Yet, in perpetuating these stories, which are often little more than emotional linkbait, journalists are complicit in a gross oversimplification of a complicated phenomenon. In short, we’re getting the facts wrong.

The common narrative goes like this: Mean kids, usually the most popular and powerful, single out and relentlessly bully a socially weaker classmate in a systemic and calculated way, which then drives the victim into a darkness where he or she sees no alternative other than committing suicide.

And yet experts – those who study suicide, teen behavior and the dynamics of cyber interactions of teens – all say that the facts are rarely that simple. And by repeating this inaccurate story over and over, journalists are harming the public’s ability to understand the dynamics of both bullying and suicide.

People commit suicide because of mental illness. It is a treatable problem and preventable outcome. Bullying is defined as an ongoing pattern of intimidation by a child or teenager over others who have less power.

Yet when journalists (and law enforcement, talking heads and politicians) imply that teenage suicides are directly caused by bullying, we reinforce a false narrative that has no scientific support. In doing so, we miss opportunities to educate the public about the things we could be doing to reduce both bullying and suicide.

There is no scientific evidence that bullying causes suicide. None at all.

To be fair to the journalists, in many cases they're just passing along the myths perpetuated by others, and that's not exactly a shockingly new phenomenon. And in the case of teenagers, I think the statement "people commit suicide because of mental illness" may be a little too strong. Most of us have seen cases of teens who treat every emotional peak and valley as the greatest or the worst thing anybody has ever experienced. I think some teen suicides are from despair they think, inclorrectly, won't end. I'm not sure I'd call that mental illness -- more like mental immaturity.

But the mental illness connection has always been underplayed if mentioned at all, and we need to pay attention to the folks in the General Assembly -- they're already cranked up their awareness of bullying, and they're likely to do something inappropriate at any time.

The JG has a piece this morning on concerns about the rising suicide rate at IPFW, and to its credit (and to the credit of IPFW officials, too), the mental-illness connection does not go unnoticed:

IPFW has several programs available to students struggling with mental health issues, including a Peer Health Educator Program, training for professors and resident assistants to identify students who are struggling and campus police officers trained in crisis intervention.

The Peer Health Educator Program includes students who are recruited and trained in health education so they can talk to their peers about the importance of exercise, stress management and a good diet, McClellan said.