Bullying victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims according to the latest research. Get the facts and statistics on bullying caused by suicide.

Illustration by Emma Darvick

Bullying can be an extremely painful and scary experience for parents to walk through with your children. It is every parent's nightmare to realize your child may be suffering. While you have likely read headlines about children of all ages who have committed suicide due to bullying, there are many things that may lead to that as a final act.

Knowing how to engage your kids in conversation about bullying and how to seek help for bullying can be overwhelming, but there are many helpful resources that can be an aid to you and your child's support systems (from family, school and mental or medical health professionals).

"As a parent, you can help your children by being an advocate for their mental and physical health involving bullying that can happen at school, online or via text messages," says Karyn Erkfritz-Gay, PhD, NCSP, BCBA-D, LCP, psychologist and manager of youth mental health at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital.

Here is everything you need to know about bullying and its connection to suicide, and how you can help your child that you suspect may be bullied.

The Relationship Between Child Bullying and Suicide

You've likely heard many tragic stories of young children committing suicide as a result of bullying. The headlines are crushing:

According to the CDC, while these extremely young examples of suicide are rare, the number of suicides in children younger than 12 increased from 31 in 1999 to 53 in 2016.

"We know that bullying behavior and suicide-related behavior are closely related," says Pauline Yi, MD, pediatrician at UCLA Health Beverly Hills. "This means youth who report any involvement with bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related behavior than youth who do not report any involvement with bullying behavior."

However, experts are not yet sure if bullying alone causes suicidal ideation.

"We don't know if bullying directly causes suicide-related behavior," says Dr. Yi. "We know that most youth who are involved in bullying do NOT engage in suicide-related behavior. It is correct to say that involvement in bullying, along with other risk factors, increases the chance that a young person will engage in suicide-related behaviors."

The connection between bullying and suicide may be related to other mental health issues.

"The relationship between bullying and mental health, particularly depression and reduced self-worth, highlights a common connection to suicide and may contribute to bullying as a risk factor, since we know that depression and mental health issues are primary risk factors for suicide," says Wendy Hahn, Psy.D. child psychologist at the Center for Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic Children's.

Bullying and Suicide Statistics

Here are a few interesting and important facts about bullying and suicide:

  • Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University.
  • Youth suicide risks are on the rise. A 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report from the Centers for Disease Control found that numbers increased from 2007 to 2017 in self-reported numbers on: persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, suicide ideation, planning for suicide, attempting suicide, and being medically treated for suicide attempts.
  • In the same 2017 report, 31.5% of high school students had experienced periods of persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness (i.e., almost every day for two weeks or more in a row so that the student stopped doing some usual activities) in the past year, and 17.2% of students had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death of Americans ages 10-34 year-old, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
  • "Research has suggested that children who experience bullying are more likely to engage in suicide behaviors both as a child as well as later in life as adults," says Dr. Hahn. "Related to suicide, another significant statistic that stands out is that within the age range of 15–19 years old, the rate of individuals dying by suicide has surpassed that of homicide when looking at the rates over time between 1999 and 2016," says Dr. Hahn. "In 2016, the National Center for Health Statistics with the CDC indicated 1,816 homicide deaths, and death by suicide was identified as 2,117."
  • Two states, Utah and Oregon, have recently introduced laws allowing students to take mental health days, according to The New York Times

How to Protect Your Child

"Current findings suggest that there is not a simple risk profile for suicide," says Dr. Hahn. "There are a broad range of contributing factors that may vary between settings, including dynamics related to individuals, peer groups, families, school settings, communities, and societal factors."

We asked three children's health and mental health professionals for their tips on what to do if you suspect your child is being bullied. Here's what they want parents to know:

Watch for signs of depression.

"Kids may be observed as increased irritability or anger, atypical mood changes, changes in sleep or eating, less enjoyment in activities, decline in grades, and gradual distancing from others," says Dr. Hahn. "A particular concern is subtle comments that kids will make that may also suggest risk for suicide, such as 'no one cares' or 'it doesn't matter'."

How to help: With any of these signs, talking to kids about their experiences and getting them professional help is very important. Also keeping open communication with school staff and other parents may be useful.

Take time every day to talk with your children.

"If your kids have a sense of connectedness with you, they may feel comfortable seeking support for bullying," says Dr. Erkfritz-Gay. "Sometimes kids feel isolated or alone in problems, so spending quality time with your child, like making sure you have at least 15 minutes every day that is not about a chore list, things you need to do at school, but that is just focused on an enjoyable activity with your kid is key."

How to help: "Schedule in that sacred carved out time. Try to make it no screens—some families enjoy Sudoku, Mad Libs, a board game, or another activity you can center your interaction around."

Be an advocate for your child.

"If a child comes to a parent stating concerns of being bullied, it is critical that parents take these disclosures seriously, since we know that there is a healing effect when a child feels heard and has an appropriate advocate," says Dr. Hahn. "Parents need to keep in mind that bullying is not a dynamic that children can solve on their own, and adult action is necessary, particularly given that there are often broad ranging factors that contribute."

How to help: "Getting information from the child about the experiences, expressing appreciation for the child communicating about the experiences, getting the child help that may include professional services, and working together with other adults within the setting of which the bullying is occurring are all critical actions," says Dr. Hahn.

Have an ongoing dialogue with child's school.

"If you want to help your child, having a relationship with your child's school or teachers will help keep an open dialogue," says Dr. Erkfritz-Gay. "If you see changes in your child's behavior, like they're more withdrawn, consider seeking professional health.

How to help: While going to the principle or other 'higher ups' may be helpful, it's best to engage with a teacher your child sees every day. "Connecting with a guidance counselor or a teacher your child feels connected to is important. Kids may be embarrassed figuring out how to navigate bullying, so finding a teacher they feel connected to check in with will help you," says Dr. Erkfritz-Gay.

Teach your kids about bullying.

"Parents can also assist by supporting kids in building positive self-worth, as well as encouraging kids to use pro-social actions, including between siblings. Parents can model healthy problem solving, empathy, and assertiveness skills as well as teach these skills," says Dr. Hahn.

How to help: "Teaching kids about bullying and encouraging kids to feel comfortable speaking up to adults when bullying occurs or if a peer is being bullied or expressing thoughts of depression or suicide is also helpful," says Dr. Hahn. "As mentioned, parents are also encouraged to be aware and involved in working with other adults in settings, such as school and extra-curricular activities, so that the systems may promote pro-social, healthy dynamics that have respect for differences and that intervene early and effectively if aggression or bullying occurs. Finally, be aware of your child's online activity and have discussions about safety and healthy use of cyber communication."

Get involved with the parents of the instigator.

"Parents who see a serious bullying problem should talk to school authorities about it, and perhaps arrange a meeting with the bully's parents," says Dr. Yi. "More states are implementing laws against bullying, and recent lawsuits against schools and criminal charges against bullies show that there are legal avenues to take to deal with bullies."

How to help: If school authorities don't help with an ongoing bullying problem, local police or attorneys may be able to, says Dr. Yi.

Manage your child's technology footprint.

"Having access to all of your child's technology—from social media to cell phones—is important," says Dr. Erkfritz-Gay.

How to help: Of course, it depends on how involved you'd like to be in their private conversations. Strategies could include any sort of parental controls or protections. You may want to check their phones once or twice a week. Always have all your children's passwords and passcodes. You could also require your kids to leave their phones in a certain place in your home by a certain time," says Dr. Erkfritz-Gay.

It’s also a good idea to give your child the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). It’s 24/7, free, and confidential.