Suicidal Behavior in High School Students: The News About Bullying?

Suicidal Behavior in High School Students: The News About Bullying?

Madelyn Gould, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Madelyn Gould, Ph.D., M.P.H., used her AFSP Standard Research Grant to study the relationship between bullying and suicide in high school students and dispel the media portrayal of bullying as a singular cause of suicide. Dr. Gould’s findings indicate that experiencing bullying in combination with other risk factors such as past suicidal ideation or attempts, depression and substance use raises the risk for suicidal behavior. Bullying, by itself, does not necessarily lead to increased suicidal behavior. 

This is one of the first studies to focus on bullying and suicidal behavior using a longitudinal, rather than cross-sectional, approach. The investigators surveyed students in the ninth through twelfth grades from six New York State high schools to determine both their risk for suicidal behavior and their exposure to bullying. Risk for suicidal behavior was defined as a past or recent suicidal ideation or attempt, at least moderate current depression and/or problems caused by substance use. The cohort of students was divided into four groups: 1) not at risk for suicidal behavior and not bullied; 2) “at-risk” and not bullied; 3) not at risk and bullied; and 4) “at-risk” and bullied and/or bullying others. The “at-risk” groups were followed-up two years later and the “bully-only” group was assessed four years later.

Dr. Gould found that bullying was only associated with later suicidal ideation or attempts for “at-risk” students. Those who were bullied without the other risk factors had increased levels of depression over time, but overall they had fewer psychiatric problems than did those students who were already at risk for suicidal behavior regardless of bullying. 

Her findings indicate that the media focus on the relationship of bullying and suicide may be ignoring a stronger underlying issue. She suggests that bullying should be a factor in screening for suicide risk, but rather than placing the blame for suicidal ideation and behavior solely on bullies, we can begin to see bullying as a critical factor adding to preexisting risk factors such as depression, anxiety and substance use problems. Bullying has a negative impact on all students.

Madelyn Gould, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a Professor of Clinical Epidemiology in Psychiatry at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons, and a Research Scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

Published article from this study:

  • Klomek A.B., Kleinman M., Altschuler E., Marrocco F., Amakawa L., Gould M.S. (2011). High School Bullying as a Risk Factor for Later Depression and Suicidality. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. 41(5): 501-516.