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The Link Between Bullying and Suicide

As we saw in the Tyler Clementi case, sometimes drawing a direct line is hard. Emily Bazelon looks at the new documentary Bully and is shocked to find one of the main character's mental health history missing:

I asked Hirsch why he didn't mention Tyler's diagnoses. "I really felt that by not disclosing it, we wouldn't allow the audience to prejudge," he said. "It was a decision we thought about a lot. Ultimately, we thought the film would be more powerful without it." To Ann Haas, a senior project specialist for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, this was a serious error. When I played Bully for Haas, she recoiled in horror, and I don't use the word lightly. 

"To leave Tyler's mental health problems out of the film is an egregious omission," she said. "It is really misinformation. The filmmakers' had the opportunity to present bullying as a trigger, as one factor that played a role in a young person's suicide. But to draw a direct line without referencing anything else--I'm appalled, honestly. That is hugely, hugely unfortunate." Haas feels strongly about this for a few reasons. 

First, research shows a strong link between Asperger's and suicide and a link between bipolar disorder and suicide as well. This means these facts about Tyler are important to understanding his decision to take his life. There's more, too. From Haas' point of view, by presenting such an incomplete version of the facts, Hirsch has created a real risk of suicide contagion--the documented phenomenon of people mimicking suicidal behavior in light of media representations.
One of the problems with bullying is that so many of us (I am not speaking metaphorically) experienced it and so many of us are left with lasting scars. There is a strong feeling toward doing whatever we can tor save that next generation some of that pain. But strong feeling often overwhelms health skepticism.

I think part of the problem with suicide--particularly if the person was being bullied--is that there is also a strong urge to punish anyone who might have contributed to the person's death. I certainly felt--and still feel--that way about Dharun Ravi. I don't think that feeling took me to anywhere particularly wise. It is extremely difficult to accept that with suicide you may not get any causal answers.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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