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'We all have a role in preventing bullying'

Jennifer Campbell was enjoying family time at a local school event when she noticed a group of girls approach two teens chatting easily nearby.

Maybe it was her intuition as a mental health professional – Campbell is a licensed therapist who serves as Washington Health Systems Program Manager, Center for Mental Health and Wellbeing Inpatient and Outpatient Services – because her ears tuned into the conversation.

What she heard was heartbreaking.

“(They) were just making these little comments” about the two girls’ appearances and outfit choices, loud enough for the girls to hear.

“I confronted the group of girls. I walked over, I said, ‘Do you realize how hurtful that is?’” Campbell said. “Their reactions back to me, blatant disrespect, just blew my mind. The one girl looked at me and rolled her eyes.”

Campbell followed up with the two girls and learned the behavior she witnessed is nothing new.

“They said they’re bullied on a regular basis. They have lost confidence in their ability to even go to the school. They think it will just make the situation worse,” said Campbell.

Fewer than half – 46%, to be exact – of students who are bullied report the incident to an adult, according to the most recent statistics released by stopbullying.gov.

About 20% of students between the ages of 12 and 18 have reported being bullied by peers they view as having more social influence or money, or the ability to influence others’ perception of the victim.

Of the 19% of high schoolers who report being bullied on school property, most experience bullying in halls and stairwells, in the classroom or cafeteria and outside, on school grounds.

Campbell, who earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh, said the bullying she witnessed at a school event weighed heavily on her mind.

When she began planning the October WHS Center for Mental Health and Wellbeing Monthly Newsletter, an eblast she sends to more than 2,000 employees, partners and other subscribers, Campbell learned that it’s National Bullying Prevention Month.

“This is a prevalent topic, especially after I witnessed some bullying at a local event. I haven’t even heard anything this week about my kids in elementary school coming home or any activities that are going to be going on in October to raise awareness about bullying,” said Campbell. “I just wonder where the school is with all of this.”

Across the country, the number of mental health emergency department visits for children ages 5 to 11 increased 24% between April and October of last year. The number of visits for youth ages 12 to 17 increased, too, up 31% from 2019.

In the last half of 2020 alone, there was a 17% increase in suicide and self-injury cases at children’s hospitals.

“We work with a lot of patients who come to us with low self-esteem, suicidal ideation. It has a lot do to with situations in the school related to bullying,” said Campbell. “We see a lot of kids that are engaged in self-injurious behaviors.”

Cutting, Campbell said, is one of the most common forms of self-harm.

“To them, it makes sense. Cutting, for them, is a maladaptive coping mechanism during times of stress and anxiety, which often leads to greater issues. These individuals are trying to alleviate stress and pain in a different way.”

Bullying can be an underlying cause of mental health issues, but it isn’t often talked about. When it is, the messaging sounds something like, “Be kind,” or “Be the bigger person.”

“Parents go, ‘What they say is not important,’ but to the kid, it is,” said Mike Pecosh, a licensed professional counselor and managing partner at Pecosh Counseling & Consulting in Southpointe. “We try to empower people. It’s not about getting rid of bullying. What we want to do is teach people how to cope when it happens.”

Pecosh, who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, said there is no diagnosis for being bullied. He aims to change the way patients perceive the things happening in their lives and give them control over their narratives.

“Life gives you adversity,” said Pecosh. “Generally speaking, we teach children how to change their thinking in order to feel better. What you can control is what you tell yourself about what’s happening.”

But sometimes, kids don’t have the mental wherewithal to write their own version of the story. They may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, like substance abuse or eating disorders.

Campbell said victims of bullying often experience anxiety, chronic depression, suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress disorder. They may have difficulty sleeping or lose interest in activities.

Throughout her career, Campbell has seen kids drop out of sports and other extracurricular activities as the direct result of bullying. She’s even seen kids transition to homeschooling when bullying at school became too much.

Bullying isn’t something kids outgrow, an unpleasant childhood memory.

“What we’re seeing is it can have a long-lasting effect that goes long beyond childhood. Adults go into therapy ... a lot of them have been bullied as children. They develop low self-esteem; they start to have a poor perception of themselves. They believe what is said about them or to them,” said Campbell. “They don’t have enough love and appreciation for themselves.”

Like Pecosh, Campbell agrees there is no clear-cut solution to end bullying, but she thinks a good place to start is at home.

“What I’ve seen is the change in accountability within the home environment. Parents need to be more engaged. Help kids understand bullying, how their behavior can have long-term consequences on somebody else,” she said. “I think the challenge is, I don’t know that parents are in the position today, the accountability needs to be in youth programs. If you have a coach that is witnessing or being told that there are kids in your group reporting bullying with, that coach has an obligation to address it.”

Campbell added: “I would argue it’s our duty to society. As parents, as adults, as caregivers, as teachers, our responsibility is to talk to kids about how bullying affects people. We all have a role to play in preventing bullying.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations high among the unvaccinated, Pennsylvania report says

A report released Friday by the Pennsylvania Department of Health said that in the past month, 74% of those hospitalized due to COVID-19 in the state had not been vaccinated.

The Health Department also reported that from January to October of this year, 93% of those hospitalized with the coronavirus had not been vaccinated, and 93% of those who died due to COVID-19 had not been vaccinated or had only received one dose. In addition, 91% of all reported cases occurred among those who had not been vaccinated, or were not fully vaccinated. Vaccines became widely available across Pennsylvania and in much of the country in the spring.

The department reported almost 5,000 people have been hospitalized across the commonwealth in the last month because of COVID-19. There were a little more than 135,000 positive cases, driven by the contagious delta variant.

Acting Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson pointed out that the number of so-called “breakthrough” cases, when fully vaccinated individuals become ill with COVID-19, is bound to increase as more Pennsylvanians are vaccinated.

“It’s like what we saw with seat belt use years ago,” Johnson explained. “As the number of people wearing seatbelts increased, the number of car accidents involving people wearing seatbelts went up. However, the overall fatality rate from car accidents dropped. Your chances of dying in a car accident drop dramatically if you wear a seatbelt. So, too, your chances of dying from COVID-19 drop substantially if you are fully vaccinated.”

Johnson said the data in Pennsylvania lines up with data across the country, and keeping tabs on how cases and hospitalizations rise and fall will help determine how long immunity lasts among vaccinated individuals, and if booster shots should be administered.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 65% of the eligible population in Washington County has been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday. In Greene County, 48% of those eligible have been vaccinated, and 59.4% have in Fayette County. In Allegheny County, the vaccination rate stands at 68.6%, and in Westmoreland County, it is 59.7%.

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Commissioners to tweak meeting public comment period
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The Washington County commissioners may have to tweak their public comment period after updating the policy during Thursday’s meeting that led to complaints from several people who wanted to speak but were denied.

The commissioners voted unanimously to expand the amount of time from three minutes to five in which one person can speak on behalf of a larger group on a single issue, which has been a policy for years.

That led to complaints from a half-dozen people who apparently wished to speak about the 2020 election after board Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan said they must pick a single spokesperson for the group. Ashley Duff of Monongahela, a frequent critic of the presidential election, spoke for the allotted five minutes, once again raising concerns and asking for a full forensic audit.

But a woman who spoke to Irey Vaughan after the meeting said her friend was in the audience and wanted to speak to praise of the county’s election office and let county officials know she was against an audit. Irey Vaughan said Friday she’s thinking about how the policy was implemented and whether there should be changes on how to apply it.

“If there’s an issue, we’ll correct it,” Irey Vaughan said. “We are going to handle it differently.”

Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association in Harrisburg, said some changes should be made to ensure all viewpoints are heard. She said that if speakers are talking about the same issue and have nearly identical opinions or messages, then the board can limit them after hearing it multiple times.

“Who else supports it? Raise your hand. Anyone who wants to say something different, here’s your shot,” Melewsky said of a hypothetical public comment situation. “The only time they can lump people together is if they’re saying the same thing.”

Numerous residents have regularly commented on the 2020 election over the past four months and asked for the commissioners to perform what they termed a “full forensic audit” of the electronic voting machines. But Melewsky said the commissioners don’t necessarily know what will be said, so lumping groups together before a person speaks can be an issue. Once it’s clear a “repetitive” viewpoint is being expressed, the county officials can move on to other commenters, she said.

“I’m not saying they have to sit there and listen to the same canned speech 50 times, but people have the right to let their elected leaders know where they stand,” Melewsky said. “The assumption is the problem. They’re assuming people are taking a position when they have no idea what people are going to say.”

County solicitor Jana Grimm said the group speaking policy is in place to keep meetings “orderly” and on task. She said it doesn’t involve a single topic, and would be enforced if countless were talking about other issues, such as littering.

“It’s not content related,” Grimm said. “If they’re in the same interest and if they’re saying the same thing ... then the chair has the right to put in reasonable rules.”

The next voting meeting for the commissioners will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 21 in the first-floor conference room at Courthouse Square.

What's closed

Federal, state and county offices will be closed Monday in observance of Columbus Day. There will be no mail delivery, and most banks will be closed.