Psychotherapist explains how bullying leads to suicide

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comApril 20, 2013 

Earl Nichols is a psychotherapist at the Pastoral Institute in Columbus. He has 37 years of professional experience in counseling adolescents who were bullied or bullied others.

Nichols called bullying an "enormous" problem in American schools and part of the problem is the secrecy.

"If I could go back 15 years, bullying was a much more obvious activity," he said. "It was much more visible when kids picked on kids. But now with social media, it's next to impossible to know who it is."

The Ledger-Enquirer described to Nichols the case of Devin Brown, the 13-year-old Rothschild Middle School student who killed himself at home last month after a series of bullying incidents this school year.

Devin's father, Ray Brown, said social media doesn't seem to be a factor in his son's bullying.

Still, this case fits a pattern that's too familiar, Nichols said.

"There are those who say that suicide for a person who feels powerless is the ultimate exercise of power," he said.

Nichols explained how bullying can lead to suicide. He called it a "continuing erosion of self-esteem and sense of isolation and shame, and they eventually feel they can't live with it anymore."

In a school, that isolation leads to a lower social standing for bullied students, Nichols said.

"They don't have people step up to protect them," he said. "They tend to communicate this in some way, but the help is often unavailable or ineffective.

"For instance, the teacher says, 'I didn't see it happen, and the boys say they didn't do it, so my hands are tied.'"

Devin didn't leave a suicide note. Most suicide victims don't, Nichols said. Whether they do or not "doesn't mean a great deal," he said.

Often, the warning signs are evident in hindsight.

"The circle of acquaintances will say, 'I knew they were struggling, but I didn't think it was that bad,'" Nichols said.

Devin calmly telling a fellow student on the way home about his suicide plan was a cry for help, Nichols said.

"He probably said that so calculatingly, the person didn't see him upset, so he didn't take it seriously," Nichols said.

Always take such threats seriously, he said.

"I'd rather be wrong and have you alive than be right and have you dead," Nichols said. "I can live with you being angry at me if you are alive."

The key to helping those who express suicidal thoughts is to ask two questions:

• How are you going to do it?

• When are you going to do it?

If distressed people have a method and a time for suicide planned, they are in immediate danger, Nichols said.

"Most of the time, suicide is not an instance of spontaneity," he said.

But before anyone gets to that level of desperation, Nichols emphasized, those who care must show it -- even fellow students.

"If the students will advocate for other students," he said, "it will reduce the bullying measurably."

Nichols praised the Brown family for being willing to speak publicly about Devin's suicide.

"It's a wonderful gift to the community," he said. "Maybe it will help prevent something similar."

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