Bullying; Stress, Suicide & Social Media Conference
Red Cow Hotel
Tuesday, 26th March 2013
A Policy Perspective on Bullying and Suicide
Jerry Buttimer TD
Chairperson, Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
I would like to look at the area of education and bullying; something that can have a lifelong impact on the lives of people who are victimised by bullying.
“Bullying is intentional negative behaviour that typically occurs with some repetitiveness and is directed against a person who has difficulty defending himself or herself”
Very often bullying is based on a person’s sexuality or gender, a core part of a person’s being, the fundamental elements of self.
Many times the bullying is not about the victim, it can be about the attitudes of the bully or indeed society.
Scale of Bullying
Before looking at policy initiatives to address bullying we must have an understanding of its scale. How many people have been bullied? What forms does it take?
Recent research findings have given us some very interesting data:
– The Department of Children and Youth Affairs ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ study found that over 24% of 9 to 17 year olds have reported been bullied.
– The Anti-Bullying Centre in Trinity College found that one in four girls and one in six boys in Ireland have been involved in cyber-bullying either as a victim, bully or both.
– Research commissioned by the GLEN (Gay & Lesbian Equality Network) & BeLonG To on the experiences of young LGBT people in Irish schools has found that 58% reported the existence of homophobic bullying in their schools.
Those findings of the Department and of the Anti-Bullying Centre show a remarkable similarity across the general population. However the survey of young LGBT people shows that they disproportionately experience bullying.
Bullying can have a life-long impact; it can have a terrible and corrosive impact on our children and young people. It erodes and damages their confidence, self-esteem and mental health. It can reduce their achievements in education.
Some victims of bullying move on with their lives, but very often they never forget the traumatic experience. For others the affects can last for years. In the worst of situations, regrettably it can have the tragic and extreme consequence of the loss of young lives.
Recently we have learned of a number of very tragic cases where bullying was involved. My heart breaks for the families and friends of those young victims.
How do they come to terms with those terrible events? How do they grieve for their lost loved one?
It is totally unacceptable that any child would be subjected to such targeted abuse while in school. Let alone that it should result in the loss of life. That is why it is imperative that we take action; action at a personal level, within communities and action at a political level.
The Programme for Government commits to supporting schools in developing local strategies to address bullying in Irish schools.
Responsibility on Schools
Already schools are under a duty to act.
The Education (Welfare) Act, 2000 obliges all schools to have a Code of Behaviour. The National Education Welfare Board, which now comes under the remit of the Department of Education and Shills, has issued guidelines requiring each school must have policies to prevent or address bullying.
Schools must make clear in their code of behaviour that bullying is unacceptable. The guidelines further state that as well as making explicit that bullying is prohibited in the school, and having an anti-bullying policy, the code of behaviour should indicate what action the school will take in relation to alleged breaches of the school’s bullying policy. Compliance by schools with these requirements is now inspected by Department of Education Inspectorate during Whole School Evaluations.
Under the Education Act 1998, Boards of Management have responsibility for the day-to-day management of the school. Included in this is responsibility for tackling bullying. Responsibility falls to the level of the individual school because it is at local level that an effective anti-bullying climate must be established. It is at local level that actions should be taken to address bullying.
I would call on schools to redouble their effort to address the problems of bullying.
As a teacher, and now as a public representative, I have witnessed bullying change and go beyond the playground and into the homes of children. This change has been in tandem with the evolution of modern communication technologies.
Previously bullying was confined to the school yard, then it extended to mobile phones, it has now extended to social networking sites.
A child who is excluded on the playground can now also feel isolated in their own home. For the victims of bullying technology has effectively ended the refuge of the home. The emergence of cyberbullying now means that a school child is virtually bringing the bully home with them.
I have become increasingly concerned now as a public representative as to how social networking sites treat online bullying. Those who operate social networking platforms must be aware of the damage that cyberbullying can cause. Although it is not their sole responsibility to address and tackle the issue they must be active participants in our combined efforts to address this ever increasing problem.
Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte TD, recently attended a meeting of the Oireachtas Communications Committee, which has been investigating menacing messages on websites such as Facebook and Twitter.
The Minister has clearly signalled his intension to broaden his scope of communication regulation to include all forms of electronic communications. The Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act 2007 makes it an offense “to send by telephone any message that is grossly offensive indecent, obscene or menacing” or to send any message known to be false, or “persistently make calls to another person without reasonable cause.”
Clearly, this is the language of another time, a time which has been relegated to history by rapid advances in technology.
The Minister openly admits that there are gaping holes in the legislation because it is old, in comparison to the advancement in technology, smart phones and handheld devises. There is a need to update this legislation to ensure that it is fit for purpose in our highly networked society.
We must make a change so that the law is technology neutral, so that future advances don’t leave society facing the same challenges in years to come.
The Minister plans to meet with social media companies that would appear to have different approaches to the problem. He has plans to introduce a standard system to dealing with complaints and the removal of offensive posts.
For anyone interested in this area or for those who know someone affected by cyberbullying I would encourage you to visit the website www.webwise.ie.
There are very significant challenges which lie ahead if we are to tackle cyberbullying. It requires all stakeholders to engage to reach a solution which balances individual freedom and protection from intimidation, harassment and bullying.
In January this year the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn, and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, launched an Action Plan on bullying. The plan sets out 12 actions to help prevent and tackle bullying in schools, the Ministers set aside €500,000 for the implementation of the plan in 2013.
The report makes it clear that preventing and tackling bullying requires support from parents and wider society and is not a problem schools can solve alone.
Among the twelve actions recommended by the working group are proposals to:
• Support a media campaign focused on cyber bullying specifically targeted at young people as part of Safer Internet Day 2013;
• Establish a new national anti-bullying website;
• Begin development immediately of new national anti-bullying procedures for all schools. These will include an anti-bullying policy template and a template for recording incidents of bullying in schools.
These should be in place by the start of the next school year;
• Devise a co-ordinated plan of training for parents and for school boards of management;
• Provide Department of Education and Skills support for the Stand Up! Awareness Week Against Homophobic Bullying organised by BeLonG To Youth Services;
• Review current Teacher Education Support Service provision to identify what training and Continuous Professional Development teachers may need to help them effectively tackle bullying;
As well as implementing the Action Plan, Minister Quinn announced that his Department will be supporting a revision of the Stay Safe Programme for primary schools. The revised programme will address new forms of risk, including cyber bullying, and incorporate new research and best practice in the area of safeguarding children as well as changes and developments in the educational context in terms of policies, provision and curriculum.
The Action Plan on Bullying contains a number of other recommendations for further consideration by Ministers, agencies and other bodies. These include:
• A proposal to establish an Anti-Bullying Implementation Group;
• The Department of Education and Skills to engage with book publishers who produce materials for schools to address the issue of stereotyping;
• Development of a new National Framework for Anti-Bullying which would set out the Government’s commitment to preventing and tackling bullying for children and young people from early childhood through to adulthood;
• Research into how other countries investigate procedures in other jurisdictions to see if these could be used to improve the Irish system;
• Encourage social media and telecommunications companies and internet service providers to continue to work with State Agencies, NGOs, parents and young people to raise awareness of cyber bullying and how it can be dealt with.
This Action Plan is part of the Government’s commitment to preventing and tackling incidences of bullying in schools. The Programme for Government includes a specific commitment to encourage schools to develop anti-bullying policies, and in particular strategies to combat homophobic bullying.
Homophobic and transphobic bullying
One of the key actions to combat homophobic bullying is support of the Department of Education and Skills for the Stand Up! Awareness Week Against Homophobic Bullying. Homophobic and transphobic bullying are widespread in schools and we know from the Supporting LGBT Lives study that was funded by the National Office for Suicide Prevention that 60% of LGBT people reported homophobic bullying and 35% reported homophobic comments from teachers in their schools. Awareness and education are essential to reducing the incidents and the consequences of bullying which affect so many young LGBT people.
There are signs of hope among young people, increasingly they are become more aware of homophobic and transphobic bullying. In consultations held by the Ombudsman for Children it was identified by young people themselves that this is an area that needs to be addressed, they understand how difficult it can be for victims to speak about this form of bullying.
Young people are aware of the cruelty and injustice of bullying but we, as a society, must give them the tools to understand the consequences, we must give them the tools to express their sense of injustice and prevent this devastating bullying among their peers. As part of the Action Plan on Bullying the Department will engage with book publishers who produce materials for schools to address the issue of stereotyping. The Action Plan on Bullying will provide a platform to help achieve these goals.
Bullying beyond the school gate
I have focussed this section of my presentation on bullying in the context of schools. However we must be aware that bullying is not just confined to schools. It continues beyond the school days of of victims, for some it continues in the work place.
Many times the bullying is not about the victim, it can be about the attitudes of the bully or indeed society. Just because the victim and bully graduate from school does not mean that the problems are left behind them. Thankfully, very often people do mature and come to realise and appreciate the need to respect each individual. However there are instances where this does not happen.
We all have a duty to be alert to the needs and vulnerabilities of those around us. While public policy does have a role to play, it does heavily influence people, each of us must also act to combat the problem of bullying.
“If mental health becomes more of an everyday issue that matters to us all then the stigma attached to getting help can be reduced.” (Mental Health in Ireland: Awareness and Attitudes, 2007)
That is the task that faces us all, to make mental health a priority, erode the stigma and to be able to speak about mental health.
Suicide is a tragedy that we must constantly work to prevent. We must also constantly work to give more support to the families affected. For the Government Dealing with the current high levels of suicide and deliberate self-harm is a priority.
Those who have experienced the death of a family member or friend from suicide and those of us who know a survivor understand the devastation, the tragedy experienced by family, friends and community. Those who attempt self-harm are seeking help, sending out a cry for help in many cases. Each of us knows many who make the journey to recovery, glad of a second chance.
Programmes and Supports
The most recent full year statistics from the CSO indicate an increase of 7% in the number of suicides. 525 suicides were registered in 2011, compared with 490 in 2010. The figures also revealed a rise in male suicides, which accounted for 84% of all suicide deaths in 2011. These are people, a son/daughter, a brother/sister, a friend or class mate.
Reach Out, the national strategy for action on suicide prevention, sets out a series of specific actions and calls for a multi-sectoral approach to the prevention of suicidal behaviour. The National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) has implemented most of the Reach Out recommendations. A wide range of awareness and training programmes are also available, including safeTALK and ASIST, which train participants to become more alert to the possibility of suicide in their communities. Last year the NOSP also piloted a system of suicide crisis assessment nurses working with emergency departments and GPs.
Initiatives such as safeTALK and ASIST have been shown to be effective in increasing the confidence and shills of respondents in responding to people who are involved in suicidal crisis; working together to make our communities “suicide safer”.
The ASIST programme has been running since 2004, so far it has trained over 25,000 people. Since 2006 safeTALK has trained over 10,000 people. These 35,000 individuals are now able to provide a valuable resource to their communities to help in the constant challenge of suicide prevention.
Training local communities in suicide prevention is just one important aspect in addressing the challenge suicide poses to society. Other initiatives include the publication of Suicide Prevention in the Community: A practical guide.
National Office for Suicide Prevention
I mentioned earlier the National Office for Suicide Prevention; this office leads and coordinates much of the work at a national level on suicide prevention. It funds 42 programmes in 27 organisations such as Console, Samaritans, Pieta House to deliver services and vital support. These programmes include: health education campaigns, research and providing funding to agencies that directly respond to people in crisis and to families bereaved through suicide.
This year the annual budget for suicide prevention has increased to more than €13 million. €8.1 million is administered by the NOSP and is used to fund the 42 programmes in 27 voluntary and statutory agencies. The remaining €5 million is available regionally to fund resource officers for suicide prevention, self-harm liaison nurses in hospital emergency departments and local suicide prevention initiatives. A special programme of measures to further advance suicide prevention in 2013 is being developed.
Some of the other work of the NOSP includes:
• Works closely with other departments within the HSE to ensure the development of quality frontline services for people who engage in suicidal behaviour e.g. clinical programmes. Fund HSE frontline services posts in Emergency Departments e.g. nurses who respond to people who self-harm and
• Coordinates the delivery of suicide prevention skills training across Ireland to over 7,000 people on an annual basis• Commissions research into suicide prevention and self-harm• Advises government and the EU on policies related to mental health promotion and suicide prevention
The commitment and dedication of the team in the NOSP to evidence-based programmes and partnerships with a common purpose is what is required to address the issue of suicide. However it working alone will not solve the problem. Maintaining links with community based groups, helping those dedicated volunteers to provide local support services, is a vital component of our efforts to tackle the tragedy that is suicide.
The publication of a Vision for Change in 2006 heralded a new beginning, the blueprint for the development of a modern Irish mental health service. Much has changed economically since 2006. The economic reality poses challenges to the delivery of not just a vision for change but for the wider general health system and specifically in the way we can improve services in specific areas.
This Government is committed to reforming delivery of mental health services. This means moving away from the old hospital-based model, where treatment was episodic, reactive and fragmented, to a community-based patient-centred and recovery orientated service where the need for hospital admission is reduced. A special allocation of €35m for mental health was announced in Budget 2012 in line with the commitments contained in Programme for Government.
Last year there was a difficulty in relation to the spending of the €35 million ring fenced for mental health. However it must be pointed out that a substantial number of the 414 posts for community mental health teams that were to be recruited last year have been recruited and either have contracts or have already accepted. I understand that this year the €70 million – the €35 million from last year and the €35 million for this year – will be spent in community mental health teams. It is imperative that the same difficulties are not experienced this year.
Significantly, reform of the HSE will include establishing a separate Directorate for Mental Health which will have full responsibility and accountability in that area. This change finally puts mental health on a par with other healthcare services.
Mental Health is about every day events. In practical terms it’s about many different things: the type of accommodation; the people we live with; settling into college; coping with living away from home; balancing budgets, selecting wrong course; class attendance, study; alcohol and drugs; relationships, sexuality. Ordinary to many, but extraordinary to some.
Mental Health and Young People
One of the biggest challenges faced in the Western World today is the challenge of improving youth mental health and preventing youth suicide. This challenge is acutely felt in Ireland where we have experienced so much sudden and dramatic social change in recent years, from the boom years of the Celtic Tiger to the current recession. I encounter it on a daily weekly basis as people’s lives have been turned upside down.
The best information available on youth mental health in Ireland reports that at any given time around one in five young people (teenagers) are experiencing a mental health problem (e.g. Martin and Carr 2004, Lynch et al 2006, Sullivan et al 2004). 50% of mental disorders are onset by age 14 and furthermore, 75% of disorders are onset by age 24.
Research shows us that when it comes to getting help young people will turn to the internet above all other sources. Inspire has developed services to improve the mental health and wellbeing of young people so that they are supported to feel safe, healthy and resilient. Their services are safe, professional, evaluated and governed by clinical guidelines.
Reachout.com is a portal promoting an awareness of mental health and mental health problems among young people.
It is playing an important role in making young people aware of mental health issues, it is helping to remove stigma and will help prevent a reoccurrence of past mistakes.
In our increasingly online world, it is imperative that we understand how and where young people going through difficult times are looking for information and advice. These insights provide us with a window into young people’s behaviour, and we need to use this information to reach out in a meaningful way to those who need our help, while also focusing our attention on removing some of the stigma surrounding mental health.
When educating young people of these sensitive issues it is important to distinguish between mental health and mental health problems. Mental health is something which we all need to be aware of whereas mental health problems are feelings, thoughts or beliefs that negatively affect our day-to-day lives and activities which we cannot seem to, or don’t know how to, move past.
It is important that this distinction is made clear. It is only when we are aware of our mental health, in good and bad times, that we truly become aware of those times when either ourselves or others are experiencing mental health problems. This understanding is important in accessing services and in supporting others to do so.
The statistics gained from the website demonstrate some very interesting findings:
• Majority of respondents (56%) said their main reason for visiting ReachOut.com was that they were going through a tough time and were looking for help.
• The proportion of respondents answering ‘excellent’ and ‘very good’ in relation to knowledge about help-seeking has increased on last year’s results … showing a positive increase in mental health literacy among this year’s sample.
• Respondents were more confident in their ability to help a friend than to access help, support or information for themselves.
• Report shows high levels of engagement with health professionals were found when exploring previous help-seeking behaviour – 48% of the sample having visited a health professional to get help through a tough time (compared with 35% in our first annual survey).
• The high levels of engagement with health professionals suggest that people going through a tough time seek support from various sources and that a combination of online and face-to-face support can work to help people get through their tough times.
• 75% of respondents are experiencing moderate or severe levels of psychological distress … this strongly suggests that ReachOut.com is being accessed by people who are currently going through a tough time and are in much need of support (this is an increase of 12% on last year’s survey sample).
Websites like ReachOut.com provide signposts to the support available in the wider community, showing young people that help to get through tough times is available across Ireland.
Removing the stigma
Many people who take their own lives and the vast majority of people who self-harm do not engage with health or support services. Yet, every thought of suicide and every act of self-harm occur in the context of families, social networks and communities, campuses throughout Ireland.
Therefore, the only opportunity to effectively prevent suicide and improve mental health at a population level is by providing low threshold, easily accessible services in everyday settings, including online. The provision of these services online makes sense from a user’s perspective, from a cost perspective and, because we can scale and scale quickly, to reach and support thousands of people every day.
We must remove the stigma associated with mental health; it is as I have said an everyday event, part of life. Collectively the please talk message to encourage anyone experiencing difficulties to use services and supports must be taken up, solutions to problem can be found.