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.”