Mitigating the Risk of Harm to Self and Others on Both Sides of Bullying


Bullying can take many forms—physical, verbal, emotional, and cyber—and has lasting effects on anyone involved. While much of the focus of bullying lands on the victim, and rightly so, it’s also important to consider the person responsible for the behavior: the bully. Both bullies and victims of bullying are at risk.

“The literature says clearly that both bullies and victims that are involved in bullying are at risk,” says Dr. Scott Poland, an internationally recognized expert on youth suicide who directs the Suicide and Violence Prevention Office at NSU Florida. “Now, we’re never going to be able to show purely a causal relationship because at the foundation of youth suicide is untreated [or] under-treated mental illness and adverse childhood experiences.”

With this strong link between bullying and self-harm for both individuals involved in the behavior, school counselors and other personnel must understand this connection so they can screen students for suicidal ideation and provide the right support to meet their needs.

Suicide Risk in Bullies

There are a variety of reasons why someone might become a bully. In fact, some bullies may have been tormented by others and respond by repeating this behavior to those they perceive as less powerful. These bullies are referred to as bully-victims and may suffer from depression, anxiety, loneliness, and impulsiveness.

Let’s focus on bullies, not bully-victims, for a moment. What causes someone to physically or verbally harm others? It can be due to:

  • Wanting to have power, which could be a result of a difficult home life where they may feel powerless
  • Seeing aggression and violent behavior from adults at home, which students repeat in the school setting
  • Having low self-esteem, masked by participating in aggressive behavior toward others
  • Having a prejudice against others due to their race, sexual or gender identity, religion, or special needs
  • Wanting attention they may be lacking in their home life

It’s crucial for school counselors and other personnel to understand these underlying causes of bullying. Treating only the symptoms but not the cause is like continuously cleaning up a spill from a bucket full of water but not patching the hole from which the water came.

It’s also crucial for school counselors understand how bullying may be a reaction to anxiety, depression, or another mental illness so they can address those behaviors before they escalate into suicide or suicidal ideation. Suicide prevention programs that include suicide screenings and provide mental health resources to students are vital.

Suicide Risk in Victims of Bullying

Research into bullying has often centered on the bullying victim, and for good reason. These students are at increased risk of developing mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and suicidal ideation. Being bullied not only impacts a student’s life today but can have ramifications for their future. Students who are bullied are more likely to experience:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Decreased academic achievement and school attendance
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Changes to their eating and sleeping habits
  • Difficulty maintaining friendships
  • Psychosomatic disorders such as stomachaches, headaches, high blood pressure, and skin rashes

Consider the long-term impact that some of these behaviors can have on students. For example, due to decreased academic achievement and school attendance, a bullied individual may be inclined to drop out of school entirely. Furthermore, a student with increased depression and anxiety may become suicidal. Reporting instances of bullying and speaking frankly with students who are being bullied is the duty of all school personnel, especially school counselors and psychologists. There should be no hesitation in discussing the bullying behavior with them and conducting a suicide screening to give these students the support they need before the bullying leads to even worse outcomes.

Mitigating the Risk on Both Sides of Bullying

SEL programs and suicide awareness and prevention programs can work in tandem to provide schools with critical resources to help combat bullying. Navigate360’s evidence-based SEL program, Suite360 provides curricula addressing topics affecting K-12 students today, including bullying prevention. With an evolving library of topics with content scaffolded by grade, Suite360 provides the SEL lessons students need to develop stronger personal and interpersonal skills.

We also now offer a one-of-a-kind solution to suicide awareness and prevention in schools, called GPS: Guide to Preventing Suicide. Developed with Dr. Poland, the foremost expert on the subject, this program incorporates a variety of components crucial to helping educators prevent suicide and self-harm incidents across their schools. It includes:

  • Suicide awareness and prevention curriculum that exceeds state mandates and guidelines to help staff identify and aid students in crisis
  • A case management system to help guide staff through the suicide risk and behavioral threat assessment process
  • Anonymous tip reporting that provides a safe place for students to share concerns, enabling staff to proactively address critical events
  • Social Sentinel, an ethical approach to social media and email scanning technology that allows school administrators to stay ahead of harmful intentions

Implementing these programs in tandem ensures schools are not only being proactive about bullying by reaching out to students with suicide risk before escalation occurs, but also that they are providing the social and emotional support that both bullies and victims need. In turn, this leads to a more positive, open learning environment where all students can thrive.

To learn more about this topic, download our free guide, Expert Insights on Youth Suicide Awareness & Prevention in K-12 Schools. You can also get in touch with Navigate360 to schedule a safety consultation for your school by contacting us today.

If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit Suicide Prevention Lifeline for additional information. 

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