Can Bullying Lead to Murder or Suicide?

From the Oikos University shooting to Tyler Clementi's suicide to the new film, ‘Bully,’ the ‘bullied into it’ narrative is a common one. But could this storyline do more harm than good?

One L. Goh, the 43-year-old South Korean immigrant who is charged with killing seven people Monday at a tiny Christian College in Oakland, California, reportedly felt picked on by members of his mostly Korean school community.

“People at the school ‘disrespected him, laughed at him,’ Oakland Police chief Howard Jordan said, according to the Associated Press. “They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students.”

Oikos University nursing instructor Romie Delariman disputed that assertion, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that Goh “can’t deal with women” and is “mentally unstable” and “paranoid.”

Jordan said Goh had gone to the school in search of a female administrator who he felt had done him wrong, but she wasn’t there when the shooting took place. He also said Goh was expelled in January for “unspecified behavior problems” and “anger management” issues. Goh, thus far, has shown no remorse for the killings, investigators said.

The Link Between Bullying and Suicide

While few would accept or condone Goh’s explanation that mistreatment led him to kill seven people, injure three others, and traumatize an entire community, the narrative that bullying causes young people to kill themselves has become a widely accepted one in recent years.

The suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, for example, became a rallying cry for national anti-bullying campaigns in the fall of 2010. Clementi killed himself shortly after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, used a web-cam to spy on him and another man as they engaged in an intimate encounter. Ravi then took to Twitter to invite others to watch a second hook-up.

Late last month, 20-year-old Ravi was convicted of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, and tampering with the police investigation. He faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years and possible deportation back to his native India. Ravi was not charged in connection with Clementi’s death, but it is unlikely that he would have been indicted apart from it and Clementi’s family sounds firm in the belief that Ravi’s actions caused Clementi’s suicide.

In his first public statements (published at the New Jersey Star Ledger) on the case, Ravi insisted that he didn’t have a problem with his roommate’s sexuality and said he didn’t take a plea deal that would have spared him jail time because he could never get up in court and concede to the charge of bias intimidation.

“I’m never going to regret not taking the plea,” Ravi said. “If I took the plea, I would have had to testify that I did what I did to intimidate Tyler and that would be a lie. I won’t ever get up there and tell the world I hated Tyler because he was gay, or tell the world I was trying to hurt or intimidate him because it’s not true.”

A lengthy New Yorker profile of the roommates asserts that it is anything but clear that Clementi was “bullied to death.”

The Problem With Simplistic Narratives

So, what’s the harm in raising the alarm about bullying? Controversy surrounding a new anti-bullying film provides some clues.

At a website for the new documentary Bully, readers are told that 13 million children will be bullied this year and 3 million will miss school because they don’t feel safe there.The movie has won rave reviews and is being widely advocated as an anti-bullying resource for children, even though it initially received an R-rating for language. But Slate writer Emily Bazelon, who has been reporting on high profile bullying cases for the past few years, worries that the film could do “some good” and “a lot of harm” because of what it doesn’t say about mental illness in its narrative of main character Tyler Long’s suicide.

Bazelon said what is missing from the storyline is Long’s diagnosis of ADHD, bipolar disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome and the fact that his parents didn’t disclose their concerns that their son might be suicidal to counselors. Ann Haas, a senior project specialist for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, shared these concerns, telling Bazelon that leaving Long’s mental health history out of the film was an “egregious omission.”

“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,” said Haas.

Incomplete pictures like the one painted of Long’s suicide in Bully and of Clementi’s suicide in the press have the potential to create a risk of suicide contagion, which Bazelon describes as “the documented phenomenon of people mimicking suicidal behavior in light of media representations.”

“One message of this move is: ‘Bullying kills’—as if it’s a normal response to kill yourself, when of course most people who are bullied don’t do that. Young people who feel bullied could harken back to the movie, and it could be a powerful draw to suicide for them. If Tyler had been accurately portrayed as a kid with mental health challenges that were very hard for him to manage, he wouldn’t seem so attractive,” said Haas.

The filmmakers disputed Bazelon’s critique in a statement to Entertainment Weekly, saying it downplays clear evidence that Long was bullied in the “days, weeks, and months before his death,” but Slate’s deputy editor defended it, saying Bazelon was only pointing out the potential harm in a one-sided, simplistic approach to the subject.

What do you think?

Could bullying cause someone to commit murder or suicide, or do these simplistic narratives have the potential to do more harm than good?

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist, and an editor-at-large at UrbanFaith. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC, where she helps facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities.
  1. Let’s be clear — Tyler Clementi and many others took their lives before anyone ever heard of the Bully Movie. Columbine, the Virginia Shootings all happened before the Bully Movie.

    Let’s also be clear that regardless of whether Tyler Long’s mental health issues were disclosed in the film, posting his suicide note and airing this kid’s issues were incredibly insensitive, as his family is in great pain.

    Ross Ellis
    Founder and Chief Executive Officer
    STOMP Out Bullying
    Founder and Chief Executive Officer

    • Thanks for your comment Ross. As the mother of a child who died by suicide, I am intimately acquainted with the type of pain the Clementi and Long families are experiencing. If Bazelon and Slate made Tyler Long’s suicide note public when it hadn’t been (its appearance in a police report is a thin excuse),I agree that it was incredibly wrong and insensitive to do so. However, I do think she has raised important questions in her reporting on the link between bullying and suicide. Also, I in no way suggested that the movie Bully inspired any mass murder. I simply asked if the narratives about mass killers having been bullied is a productive one.

  2. The message “Bullying Kills” is correct. You can’t argue with that. That MOST people who are bullied don’t kill themselves or others does not change the fact that bullying does kill.

    Bullying ALWAYS kills a part of the person who is bullied.

    • Olivia, I disagree with you. Your perspective sounds far too hopeless.

      • Christine, you are correct. In my school years, I was a victim of bullying. Over time I learned various methods of dealing with it – fighting back, ignoring it, telling someone with authority, etc. Although I didn’t suffer as much as some of the people in the movie, I certainly was exposed often to bullying in both the physical and emotional forms, and I don’t feel as if a “part of me is dead.” Bullying can have a strong damaging effect on a young person’s psyche, but this doesn’t translate into suicide or a ‘broken’ individual except in extremely unfortunate and rare cases.

        I had the same fear as the author of this article – namely that movies like Bully which draw a direct correlation between bullying and suicide can lead to the idea that suicide is a natural response to bullying and can actually lead to MORE suicides.

        The main thing to remember, as a victim of bullying, is that times will change. Your tormentors will grow up and regret the things they did to bully you. You will find friends. Most importantly, you will understand that kids, being kids, can be cruel and immature.

  3. This is my completely honest, politically incorrect opinion, which will be bashed.

    The person responsible for a suicide or a killing is the person who commits it. There must have been reasons obviously, but that’s true of any action everyone takes. You can’t control the bully’s actions, but you can control your response. In case of mental instability or suicidal tendencies, you probably can’t control your response to the same degree. But in such cases, it’s arguable if there even was bullying or if the person misintepreted or overreacted to the reality. And second, I’m more inclined to suspect either the parents, or the teachers, or both, of negligence. You are an adult and you know a child is unstable/suicidal and bullied. So change schools. Homeschool. Talk to a doctor, a psychologist, a teacher or the bullies’ parents. Call the police and sue for harrassment. Do something while the child is still alive and bullied and trying to get you to listen to him/her.

  4. nobody deserve to be bullied it can lead to a lot of bad stuff including suicide sooo never bully nobody

  5. I do not care who you are or, what mental illness you may have ,or what age you are bullying is so wrong on all levels. How can some of you say that it’s the person fault that killed themselves that they are not alive. Or its the parents fault you have know idea what the parents went through to try to get the problem taking care of.