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Language & You - The Language of Bullying

As we come into August, back-to-school planning may be on people’s minds. Along with school supplies and other preparations, something that parents and educators should have in mind is bullying. 1 out of every 5 kids have reported being bullied, with the real number likely being higher then reported. Bullying can not only disrupt learning and bring physical harm but can also bring real mental harm.

So, let’s take this opportunity before another school year to look at bullying. We’ll talk about what bullying is, how the language around bullying can affect the mental health of victims, and how we can better address this issue. While bullying is something that can happen in any environment, we’ll be primarily looking at bullying in schools.

We all have an idea of what bullying is, but what is it actually? In simple terms, bullying is any repeatable action which seeks to harm, intimidate, or coerce the target. One of the key elements here is repeatability. While one off actions of aggression or hate might be harmful in their own way, bullying is characterized by these sorts of actions being repeated over time. This longer-term framing for bullying is in part can make it more mentally harmful.

Now, when we think of bullying it’s easy to think of the more physical factor. Getting beat up in the school yard, being shoved aside, etc. While that is an issue and contributes to mental harm, verbal forms of bullying also have serious side effects, and is more common than physical harm. Bullying heavily relies on putting others down and mislabeling them through several methods. Name-calling and insults are simply another form of mislabeling, as the person who is subject to it is being labeled as something they don’t identify with.

Along with name-calling and other such insults, there are a wide array of verbal tools that bullies can use. Teasing and taunting a person about details of their personal life is one and can often lead the victim to be more closed off from their social groups out of shame. Threating to harm someone is another contributor, since this can lead to the coercion of a victim, which in turn can drag them into a further cycle of bullying.

This kind of bullying can often wear down the victim and puts the bullied and the bully at a higher risk of mental health issues. These can include:

· Increased chance of depression and anxiety

· Low self-esteem

· Anti-social behavior, detachment from friends and family

· Suicidal thoughts

· Difficulty sleeping, which amplifies other mental effects

These are all serious problems that can be brought on by bullying, and that’s of what we know. The true mental harms of bullying are vast and can happen to anyone. Brooke Johnson was Miss America 2018 and is a NAMI Ambassador who has experienced bullying firsthand.

“During seventh grade, I was bullied quite a bit,” writes Johnson. “I can clearly remember one time—a few girls were verbally ganging up on me at a lunch table in the cafeteria. Since I was cornered at the table, it was on the brink of getting physical.”

These acts off bullying only furthered her feelings of depression and anxiety, things that would stick with her for years after the fact. It was after she realized that many people shared a similar story to hers that she decided to do something about it.

“I started a project called Crowning Confidence, geared towards young adults experiencing mental health issues and bullying,” she writes. “Increasing awareness and opening up conversations will allow more people to have access to necessary mental health information.”

It’s easy to think that what is said by kids or teenagers in the moment don’t matter so much, but from experience, those victims will look back on those events for years after. Taunting someone that they are worthless or chanting at someone to kill themselves are things that will echo onward. What we say matters, and it’s our responsibility to make certain that children and teens understand this as well.

The most important thing we can do is to address root causes of bullying itself. This isn’t easy, as bullying has complex roots in home life, social environment, and previous experience. Cases may be similar, but not all cases of bullying will be able to be solved in similar ways. Broadly, however, we can offer support, educate students on the power of their language, and refuse to tolerate actions which perpetuate a hurtful cycle.

If you or someone you know is suffering from the effects of bullying, offers many things such as immediate resources and educational tools. They additional offer methods on dealing with bullying and how to prevent it in the future.

Additionally, NAMI offers Ending the Silence, a free, evidence-based, 50-minute session designed for middle and high school students. Students will learn about mental health conditions through a brief presentation, short videos, and personal testimony from a young adult who describes their journey to recovery. Click here to find out more.

Scott Langenecker, a neuropsychologist who works with children, says that one of the most important things to consider is the culture that we foster around bullying.

“The first message kids should hear is that bullying is not acceptable, and they don’t deserve it,” he says. “Parents and schools need to create a culture in which the long-running issue is confronted and treated seriously.”

By treating bullying as a serious issue, it not only installs good faith in those affected, but it will also make bullying less likely to happen in the first place. Langenecker says that one of the worst things we can do is leave bullying unchecked.

“That sends an incredibly disempowering message to the child who has mustered the courage to report bullying.”

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