Sticks And Stones, But Also Words – Contributions To And Interventions Against Youth Suicide

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Carlotta Oltmanns, a fifth-year medical student at the University of Vienna in Austria. She is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


Among the leading causes of death for youth globally stands suicide. Although epidemiological reviews lack consistent statistics to be able to present more reliable and inclusive data, the available numbers, especially representing European and North American countries, are alarming: On average, the prevalence of suicide attempts in adolescents (aged 12-20) is 10%, while the proportion of young people who have experienced suicidal thoughts is as high as 30%. [1]

Why would any person, particularly at a young age, take their own life? Of course, contributing factors vary individually and are overall complex. There are, however, aspects linked to increased suicidal behaviour – these are often psychiatric disorders or adverse mental health events, including conflict and violence. [2]

As a form of violence, bullying affects many children and adolescents worldwide. It is commonly defined as repeated aggressive behaviour (e.g. verbal, physical, relational/social or digital) following a power gradient, carried out with the intention of discommoding or hurting the other person. In the 2020 “Global Status Report on Violence Against Children”, the WHO reports every third child aged 11-15 years having experienced bullying in the past month. [3]

Across regions, exposure to bullying is an evident and serious risk factor for suicidality – for both the bullies and those suffering from the violence. This is not only the case when correlation is assessed cross-sectionally, but direct causality is in fact indicated by longitudinal investigations, although sex differences are observed. [4]

Potential characteristics of a bully include a low frustration threshold and impulsiveness combined with an endorsing attitude regarding violence. A victim of bullying may often show traits such as insecurity, social isolation or being seen as “weak” or different. This partly addresses why already vulnerable groups, including LGBTQIA* individuals or adolescents with disabilities or medical conditions or outliers in physical appearance, face bullying in significantly higher proportions. [5]

Violence, including bullying, needs to be systematically identified and addressed not only but also through school-based intervention programmes and counselling opportunities as well as screenings and routine interventions at health care facilities. Additionally, children’s caregivers should be encouraged to nurture healthy and supportive relationships as well as to foster social and emotion regulation skills in their children. Home and school environment, but also community aspects, prove to have a remarkable impact and should therefore be attentively regarded. Considering almost every third young person having already thought about suicide at least once and its connection to bullying, more extensive and specific research will have to be conducted globally in order to be able to identify contributing factors as well as effective intervention strategies. [5]

It remains evident that suicide is preventable and even more so should be bullying and other forms of violence. In fact, it must be a common duty to actively become aware of and support those who are mistreated and suffer from any form of violence. We need to leave zero tolerance for violent behaviour or intentions and instead be role models for treating others with respect and kindness.

References:

[1] Evans, E., Hawton, K., Rodham, K., & Deeks, J. (2005). The prevalence of suicidal phenomena in adolescents: a systematic review of population-based studies. Suicide & life-threatening behavior, 35(3), 239–250.

[2] World Health Organization (WHO)/G.Motturi (2021). Suicide prevention. https://www.who.int/health-topics/suicide#tab=tab_2

[3] World Health Organization (WHO; 2020). Global Status Report on Violence Against Children 2020. https://www.who.int/teams/social-determinants-of-health/violence-prevention/global-status-report-on-violence-against-children-2020

[4] Klomek, A. B., Sourander, A., & Gould, M. (2010). The Association of Suicide and Bullying in Childhood to Young Adulthood: A Review of Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Research Findings. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(5), 282–288.

[5] Stephens, M. M., Cook-Fasano, H. T., & Sibbaluca, K. (2018). Childhood Bullying: Implications for Physicians. American family physician, 97(3), 187–192.

About the author

Carlotta Oltmanns is a fifth-year medical student at the University of Vienna in Austria. Besides having actively engaged in her local and national IFMSA (AMSA) branches, she is currently serving the federation as Development Assistant in the Standing Committee on Public Health. She would like to see herself as a global health, particularly mental health enthusiast and advocate. Her main aim is to spread awareness as well as hope.

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