Over the 9 years that have elapsed since my son’s suicide, my wife Jan and I have done whatever we could to try and reduce the amount of bullying in our society. Jan has been more focused on legal and political issues. I, and my certified therapy dog Ranger, have been working more with people directly. (Ranger and I volunteer at Highland Springs Behavioral Hospital.) We also work with suicide support groups like Chrysalis, The Compassionate Friends, and Lake County Mental Health.) Both Jan and I were involved in two video documentaries on the topic of school bullying, “Reject”, and “Mentor”. And, both of us volunteer to speak on the topic of bullying at any school that asks for our help.
During these nine years, I have met at least three dozen families that have lost a son or daughter to suicide. And, out at the hospital, I have met with close to 50 students from local Jr. High and High Schools that have made serious suicide attempts. I know I see far more students that have been bullied to the point of suicide than most people in our city. And, I know that I only see a tiny percentage of the actual total number of students that have made suicide attempts in the area.
This is not a “kinder, gentler nation.” Since the 1950s, the suicide rate for young males in the USA has tripled—there’s your hard evidence in case you needed it. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (run by the CDC), the suicide attempt rate for High School students in the USA is currently one out of every 12.5 students, EVERY YEAR.
The message should be: things in US High Schools are so bad that one out of every 12.5 students makes a suicide attempt every year. This isn’t just Mentor, but the school where YOUR OWN CHILDREN ATTEND.
Labeling the problem as “bullying” also sends the wrong message, I believe. For far too many people, especially in Jans’ and my generation, “bullying” was considered to be only when a student was being physically assaulted. Anything less than that was just “teasing”. But, there’s been a serious shift in our society in the past few decades; WORDS have replaced fists and baseball bats as the weapons of choice today. Why? Because, the aggressor can state that “I never even touched (name of victim). You can’t do anything to me !” And, they are usually right, as our laws haven’t caught up with the changes in society yet. Yes, we do see some laws being passed making cyber-bullying a crime (as a variety of a ‘hate crime’), but it hasn’t translated into legislation that affects our schools yet.
I think that “bullying” isn’t the correct way to describe what’s going on. What I see across the country over the past 40 years is an increase in interpersonal aggression, at all levels (from grade school to geriatric). Yes, many of the High School boys are emulating the Gangsta Rappers, trying to be “gangstas and thugs” but is pop culture the cause, or is it “art reflecting life”? Consider:
•We live in a “car culture”… the car has played a central role in the lives of most Americans for almost 100 years now. But, the term “Road Rage” didn’t get into the language until 1988.
•We have a “gun culture” as well…minors owning guns was popular long before America was even a country. Yet, multiple gun murders in US schools were almost unheard of until the late 1980s. The real increase in “school shootings” became apparent in the 1990s.
•Gangsta Rap … The genre was pioneered in the mid-1980s by rappers such as Schoolly D and Ice-T. Many black rappers—including Ice-T and Sister Souljah—contend that they are being unfairly singled out because their music reflects deep changes in society not being addressed anywhere else in the public forum. They believe that the white politicians neither understand the music nor desire to hear what’s going on in the devastated communities that gave birth to the art form. (Art reflecting life?)
•In 1980, the “misery index” — unemployment plus inflation — went over 20 percent for the first time since World War II. Ronald Reagan blamed this on Jimmy Carter, and then Reagan started the idea of the “service economy” and the mass exporting of US manufacturing jobs. This was the period in our history that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union…and, at the same time, the fall of the standard of living that people had enjoyed since WWII. Over the past 30 years, we have seen economic turmoil all over the globe. Countries started being a lot nastier to each other, and a serious increase in “interpersonal aggression” can be seen at every level in our population at the same time.
I don’t have a clear solution to this. Conditions must change before people will start being civil to each other again. This can’t be done merely by passing a few laws, and arresting a few bullies. Consider what would happen if the police were to arrest the drug dealer in your neighborhood? How long would it be before someone took his place? A few hours? The same is true for a bully in your community high school … if he/she gets expelled, how long would it be before someone took their place? A day or two at most? This will continue until we as a society decide that it is not OK to be this way.
What has to happen is a cultural change in our attitudes towards interpersonal aggression … at EVERY level in our society. It is correct that social rejection (interpersonal aggression) starts in Preschool and Kindergarten but it’s not going to stop as long as interpersonal aggression is tolerated at all other levels in our society.
I’m only describing the situation we all seem to be trapped in. I see parents take out their frustrations and anger on their kids, who then bring it to school and take it out on each other. If I had a viable plan that could break this cycle, perhaps that might be considered important. All I’m doing is pointing out the 800 pound gorilla in the room, and pointing out that we are all in the same room together.
Father of Eric Peter Mohat (1990-2007)