Does Bullying “Cause” Suicide?

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on September 28, 2013

Teen-suicide_leaderThe title of Deborah Temkin’s recent Huffington Post article is a simple request: “Stop saying bullying causes suicide.” Her plea is understandable and justified. Sameer and I also cringe when we read the ubiquitous headlines espousing the conventional wisdom proclaiming that “bullying causes suicide.” But what does the research actually say about the nature of this relationship?

Temkin rightly points to a handful of studies that have shown that there is some truth to the assertion that bullying plays a role in some suicides. But it is also true that most teens involved in bullying do not die by suicide. Most people who have spent some time exploring the connection understand that, like any association in the social sciences, it is often much more complicated than simply X causes Y. There are a number of known factors related to suicide that, combined with other situational or enduring life stressors (such as bullying), can predict risk. But even so, most people who experience these do not commit suicide.

I think it is just as important to remember that, as inappropriate as it is to assert that “bullying causes suicide,” it is perhaps equally incorrect to say that “bullying does not cause suicide.” The frank truth is that we really don’t know. I’m not aware of any research that has tested the “bullying causes suicide” hypothesis that has returned null findings. Most research that I am aware of, including the few samples where we include questions about suicidal ideology and attempts, shows a significant, though admittedly modest relationship in the expected direction (namely, that experience with bullying is a factor in suicide). Not the opposite. Of course there are other variables, like the risk factors noted above, that play an important role.

One realization I have come to over the last several months and years is that it is not helpful to tell a grieving family that bullying was not the cause of their child’s death, when in their hearts they know it to be. I am not going to stand in front of them and tell them that they are wrong. Here’s what we do know: most young people who are bullied do not resort to suicide. Some do. Whether it’s causal or correlational or part of a whole constellation of co-occurring challenges in the lives of certain youths, how does that really change what we all are trying to do? We seek to inform the problem of teen suicide with data, and the empirical and anecdotal data that do exist (however limited) lends more credibility to a relationship than not. Please don’t misread this as defending the media for often misrepresenting the nature of the problem, but we shouldn’t overplay our hand either.

So I would offer an addendum to Temkin’s HuffPost appeal.  Yes, people should “Stop saying bullying causes suicide.” But we also shouldn’t say that it doesn’t. The honest answer is that we really don’t know a whole lot about why some teens who are bullied consider suicide whereas the vast majority do not. As in many cases we write about on this blog, more research is necessary.

By the way, if you or a friend is contemplating suicide, please contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline at: 1-800-273-TALK.

  • Paige

    I don’t think that we are able to say that bullying causes suicide or that it doesn’t cause suicide but I do think its safe to say that bullying is one of the reason people do turn to suicide as an outlet. Now bullying may not be the main reason one decides to commit suicide but theres a very likely chance that bullying had something to do with why they made that decision whether it led up to it or was that last thing that just pushed them over the edge. Bullying is one of those things that people, especially teenagers, start believing over time. When someone continuously is calling you names or putting a bad label on you you may start to believe its true which then can lead to mental problems which can possibly later result to suicide. With this, I do believe that bullying has a strong effect on suicide, it might not be the only cause but it definitely does play a large role.

  • http://www.submitthedocumentary.com/ Roxy Mize

    I agree with you, Justin. I think suicide, in these cases, is the rsult of many factors, of which cyberbullying is ones. Cyberbullying alone may not have been responsible. An analogy came to mind when I was reading this post: one single symptom cannot tell you what disease you have. Several other symptoms can help you make a proper diagnosis. That’s what this seems like to me.

  • maroon&whitegovs

    I agree too. Nobody should be bullied on or off the internet because everyday a family is losing a love one. so for those that is bullying/cyber bullying people needs to have a life and think about the victims families and imagine how they feel when there love one is killing themselves for something that you did to embarrass he/she and imagine that you was in there footsteps and feel what they feel/felt.

  • Alexis

    This makes me change my view on suicides by cyber bullying, and it clarifies that bullying is a small factor or a small percentage of why teens suicide.