Bullying and Suicide Risk in Washington County

Bullying and Suicide Risk

The relationship between bullying and suicide risk is well documented in the research literature.  Negative outcomes for both those that bully others and those that are bullied include: depression, anxiety, involvement in interpersonal violence, substance abuse, poor social functioning, and poor school performance.1

The evidence is not yet clear as to whether bullying directly causes suicidal thoughts or actions: however, it is clear that youth who report any involvement in bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related behavior.  Recent studies of randomly selected middle – school students found all forms of bullying were significantly associated with suicidal ideation.2 Cyber-bullying in particular appears to be closely associated with suicide risk, and cyber –bullying victims are almost twice as likely to have attempted suicide when compared to youth who have not experienced cyber-bullying.3

Bullying and Suicide in Washington County

The 2013 Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS)4 asks students if they have bee bullied on school property and/or cyber-bullied through e-mail, social media, or other forms of Internet communication.  The level of depression and suicide risk for Washington County students is also measured through responses to multiple questions included in the PAYS survey.

In 2013, 26.3% of Washington County students participating in the PAYS reported at least one incident of having been bullied on school property and 17.5% reported that they had been cyber-bullied.  The self-reported prevalence of both forms of bullying exceeds the statewide averages.

Given the research evidence, the relatively high incidence of bullying reported by Washington County students is like associated with the higher than average incidence of suicide-related behavior reported by students. 

In 2013, 12.8% of PAYS respondents in Washington County reported they had planned a suicide attempt and 8.4% reported they had attempted suicide.  As is the case with bullying, the incidences of both suicidal ideation and suicide attempts are higher than the statewide norms.

Associated Risk

The depressive symptoms risk factor scale measured by the PAYS is an indicator of the potential for a variety of problem behaviors experienced by Washington County students.  Youth who experience feelings of low self-worth, failure, and depression are at a greater risk for substance abuse, anti-social behavior and suicide.  In 2013, the PAYS responses indicate 37% of Washington County students (6th through 12th grades) may be at risk for experiencing depressive symptoms.  The “at risk” percentage is higher than the statewide norm at all four grade levels include in the PAYS results.  The percentage of students at risk of experiencing depressive symptoms has also increased at all four grade levels since 2009.

The higher than average rates of self-reported bullying, depressive symptomology and suicidal-related behaviors among 6th through 12th grade students in Washington County is cause for concern.  The complex inter-relationship involving bullying behaviors (victims of bullying as well as those who bully), depression and suicide have well- documented negative effects on youth.  Preventive strategies that allow youth and their parents to explore these issues and increased involvement in youth activities that promote pro-social involvement both in school and community are recommended in order to mediate against the profound negative effects associated with bullying behaviors and depressive symptoms.

1 The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide: What We Know and What It Means for Schools, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control-Division of Violence Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014.

2Espelage, D. & Holt, M; Suicidal Ideation and School Bullying Experiences After Controlling for Depression and Delinquency, 2012.

3Hinduja, S & Patchin, J.W.: Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Suicide, Archives of Suicide Research, 14(3), 206-223, 2010.

4The PAYS Survey was administered in nine school districts in 2013 including: Bethworth, Bethlehem Center, Burgesttown, Charleroi, McGuffey, Ringgold, Trinity and Washington.  2,687 students in the 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th grades were surveyed representing 30.2% of the countywide enrollment in these grades.