Late last week, Dr. Debra Peplar and Penny Milton released their report, prepared for the Nova Scotia government, reviewing the school supports for Rehtaeh Parsons, the high school student who took her own life after being bullied at school and harassed online, possibly in the wake of having been sexually assaulted as well. Reading through the thirteen recommendations of the report, I thought not about Rehtaeh but about the peers who bullied her.
As a psychiatrist who treats only adolescents, I see many young people who have been bullied either at school or in their neighbourhoods, or online. It is so common that most of the youth who are seen in our Youth Outpatient Psychiatry Program at The Royal have been bullied. What is not common is to treat someone who is a bully. Not one of the youth I have seen, at least as far back as I can remember, has ever asked for help because he or she is a bully. I have become so struck by this that I am now asking youth if they have ever bullied someone. One might well ask why I never asked this question previously but I have always just assumed that the youth or their parents would mention this.
I always ask about a history of aggression or difficulty with the law and usually get forthright answers and, in retrospect, perhaps it is in this group that the bullies lurk. I doubt it, however, since when one obtains a history of bullying from a victim, one gets the impression of bullies being sneakier than those whose impulse control is so poor that they are suspended or arrested for hurting others. Innuendo and plausible deniability characterize the bully and there is often an impression that bullies can be in the “cool group”, from which so many are excluded.
In actual fact, bullying is minimized and normalized: “Kids can be cruel.” or “They were only joking.” It’s not seen for the aggression it is. If someone does mention that they do sometimes try to scare other people and one asks, “You mean you’ve bullied people?” , the youth or their parent can be affronted. I have learned to ask more gently about this because, really, no one wants to be a bully or to have a child who is a bully.
A bully is a coward. Youth with impulse control problems, who are clearly aggressive are not cowards – they may be frightened but they’re not cowards. When you’re aggressive, you are courageous in taking action. It doesn’t take courage to exclude someone, it takes courage to include them and to stand up for them. Youth are bullied for being gay, for being newcomers, for disabilities, for being poor, for being smart, for not being smart, for anything that makes them different. Bullies are experts at what makes others different. It’s a skill that does require some empathy. We must find a way to help these youth become something better – they have it in them. Also, we owe it to their victims.
We can all admire victims. They have courage to spare and wisdom beyond their years. We want them to speak up and ask for help, so that they do not suffer the fate of Rehtaeh Parsons. The evidence shows that our society is slowly becoming more effective in dealing with bullying. We are identifying the victims and ensuring that they get the support they deserve.
If our progress is slow, I believe it is because we are forgetting the bullies. Our success in ending bullying depends on remembering them. Send the bullies for treatment, when you find them. I am waiting to have someone say, “I’m a bully and I want to change.”