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Education

Utah mental health experts discuss the impacts and best responses to bullying

Weeping woman emotions grief surrounded by hands with index fingers pointing at her
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Bullying can lead to depression and anxiety, and also internalizing beliefs that someone deserves it.

Bullying is incredibly common and destructive. It can lead to depression and anxiety, and also internalizing beliefs that someone deserves to be treated that way, which compounds negative emotions.

That’s according to a panel of experts from the University of Utah Health and the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, who on Tuesday discussed strategies for confronting the issue.

While it’s a perennial problem, it has become a top concern following the recent death of a 10-year-old student in the Davis School District. Her mother said she was harassed for being Black and autistic.

Bullying can affect anyone, but people from minority backgrounds or those with disabilities tend to face it more than others. In Utah, people with autism are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide, according to Anne Kirby, an assistant psychiatry professor at the U. Societal factors like being teased and exclusion are a major reason for the increased risk, she said.

There are lots of reasons people pick on others, from boredom to a lack of understanding about how their actions affect others. But often it’s because they have dealt with it themselves or felt excluded.

“Helping people to feel safe in their own skin is actually going to be something that will help us mitigate the amount of bullying that's going on,” said José Rodríguez, associate vice president for Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at University of Utah Health. “The antidote for bullying is love. So how do we help the perpetrators feel the love they need so they don't hurt others?”

Neuropsychologist Scott Langenecker said it’s important for parents to not simply punish kids who try to intimidate others, but educate them about why the behavior is damaging and how to fix it.

Langenecker said one strategy that can help is for parents and educators to teach kids about compassion and respect for others. He said some of the most effective programs center around helping parents teach their children basic skills for caring for other people as well as detecting when other people are in emotional distress.

Understanding those distress signals is also important to help children who’ve been on the receiving end, he said. The signs can be subtle, such as having trouble sleeping or giving vague excuses for why they don’t want to participate in certain activities.

He said ultimately, parents and schools need to create a culture in which the long-running issue is confronted and treated seriously. When people do report it, they shouldn’t be left to deal with it alone.

“That sends an incredibly disempowering message to the child who has mustered the courage to report bullying and then to get the message that, ‘Well, we're not going to do anything about it or we can't do anything about it,’” he said.

Langenecker said the first message kids should hear is that bullying is not acceptable and they don’t deserve it. From there, it becomes a negotiation, he said, understanding the child’s concerns about how it might be managed and working towards reconciliation.

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