April 12, 2010 - Bullying as a Public Health Problem: A New Kind of Heart Disease

by Lynne Lang, BJC School Outreach & Youth Development


What can we do to repair the broken hearts, families and lives caused by bullying -- a different kind of heart disease that is affecting our country? Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois and Missouri have had recent high-profile bullying incidents ranging from cyber crimes to violent fighting to suicide. If disease is defined as any unfavorable condition or environment that affects public health, then bullying has become an epidemic. Bullying can cause headaches, abdominal pain, depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and sleep problems.

  • Children involved in bullying are more likely to get into fights, carry weapons, abuse drugs, fail or drop out of school, steal or vandalize
  • Children who are the targets of bullying suffer from isolation, depression, poor self-esteem and school failure
  • 46 percent of children bullied have reported thoughts of suicide
  • Children engaging in bullying behavior are four times more likely to have three or more convictions by the time they’re 24
  • 6,250 teachers receive daily threats by students

This tragic cycle of pain, rage and revenge can be stopped, but the answers are as complex as the problems. As a writer and trainer for BJC School Outreach and a certified Olweus Bullying Prevention Trainer, my work in schools began with teaching emotional intelligence in 1999. Helping children learn to articulate distress and learn strategies for positive change, we have seen reduction in bullying incidents in schools throughout Missouri. Here are a few suggestions to get the conversation started in your home, workplace and community.


Ending the bullying cycle is the responsibility of adults. By working together we can share the role of change agents. Teaching compassion, empathy and kindness doesn’t cost a dime. Engage in thoughtful and soul-searching conversations about intentional and meaningful ways adults can help students. Form a coalition today -- invite people to your home or office.


Blame won’t get us what we want, but shared responsibility with a solution-focus will. We cannot point fingers at parents, teachers, students or school districts without offering to support meaningful solutions. Heart health is everyone’s business. Have you smiled at a child or your neighbor lately? Investing in kindness is the first step in solving the disease of bullying.


Schools are a microcosm of society as a whole. Children do not lead the trend, they simply reflect adult behavior. Have you checked out the workplace bullying landscape? There was a 27.5 percent increase in workplace bullying since the global economic crisis hit in 2008. Higher stress levels at home and at work lead to other problems that surface in classrooms.


Schools that address name-calling, put downs, exclusion, negative humor and other destructive manners of verbal bullying have fewer incidents of physical violence reports the National Threat Assessment Center. Teaching productive communication skills and emotional literacy reduces verbal, emotional, physical, gender and cyber bullying; and creates a kinder, more civil culture at home and at school.


Teach media literacy. Helping young people dissect media messages can give them a deeper understanding of the way media violence impacts day-to-day behaviors.


Teach empathy. Allow children to articulate their distress or conflict and ask questions to help them see all sides. When youth expand their capacity to understand their emotions and the emotions of their peers, they are less likely to become involved in school violence. Empathy allows them to understand the impact of their offense and enables them to experience remorse, which prevents further offenses against their peers.


Additional key factors that prevent bullying include:

  • Teaching and enforcing basic manners and courtesy at home and school
  • Recognizing the power of the witness to lessen the impact on the target
  • Teaching how to apologize for offenses with honest conversations about change
  • Consider a restorative discipline model, focusing on repairing harm rather than a punitive approach
  • Instructing students to report incidents to adults trained to respond appropriately