Early treatment may control bullying damage
Doctors say victims, bullies suffer emotional scars, referral system necessary
By Noh Hyun-gi
Classroom bullying has become a big social issue with a string of shocking revelations about the brutality of violence that causes student victims to quit school and, in extreme cases, commit suicide.
The real problem with this intractable student violence is that there are no surefire solutions, despite greater attention being given to it.
Thus some experts say that one way of tackling this thorny issue should start with a better understanding of the psychology of victims and bullies.
Surprisingly, a close examination shows that the mental states of the perpetrators and the victims exhibit similarities with both parties likely to suffer from lasting emotional scars without prompt treatment. However, the lack of a proper referral system from schools and stigma against psychiatric help often delay a chance to intervene and provide proper treatment.
“Given the impact social interactions have on teenagers, the experience of bullying qualifies as a traumatic event,” Lee Ho-bun, director of Yonsei Nuri Child Adolescent Psychiatry Clinic said Friday. Lee belongs to a panel organized by the Yangcheongu Community Mental Health Center. Yangchongu, a southern Seoul district, was ranked top in crimes by middle school students.
“Young adults who have traumatizing memories from school are three times more likely to become suicidal,” Lee said. Common psychiatric results of bullying include depression, anxiety disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
One of Lee’s patients is undergoing PTSD treatment. The 19-year-old male was bullied in middle school when he moved from Gyeonggi Province to Gangnam, southern Seoul; he couldn’t make friends and he was beaten up every day. Gradually, he became depressed. After dropping out of college, he started harming himself, attempting suicide, and having flashbacks; he relies on imaginary friends for comfort.
In other cases, the victims turn into bullies to compensate for their pain. A fifth grader, who was victimized for two years, underwent psychotherapy and received medication (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors for depression and anxiety).
As he got better, he launched a hate website and threatened a classmate with a knife at school.
“Many children who harass others were once the victims,” Lee said. In fact, a number of students who torment others are anxious, depressed and have low self-esteem, similar to those who are bullied. For them, the acts of harming weaker classmates are mental stimulants and means of self-expression.
Often, the perpetrators have difficulties empathizing with others. The prefrontal lobe which recognizes other’s pain shows low activity in such children.
Bystanders, students who do not stop and sometimes even assist, in bullying can develop similar mental problems such PTSD.
Usually, the parents take their children to see a doctor. “There isn’t a good referral system. Thus when they finally come to see me, the kids are already at a serious stage,” said Lee. The young patients receive psychotherapy, medication, physical therapy to overcome their trauma.
While an inconsequential characteristic such as arrogance can turn a child into the scapegoat of bullies, certain traits may imply psychiatric problems. “Any child can become the target, however children are very quick to detect oddities. Some of them maybe symptoms of mental conditions that their parents aren’t even aware of,” Lee said. For example, adolescents with high functioning autism or Asperger syndrome may be singled out due to their “odd” behavior and failure to understand social cues. Often, children may make fun of and abuse peers with borderline mental retardation, possessing slightly impaired cognitive function, for being “slow.”
Cho Je-il, director of Yonsei Junior, another child adolescent clinic, stressed the importance of recognizing relationship of violence as a form of abuse. “This is seen among girls where without a physical fight, they can control and alienate others.” Common methods of relationship violence include ignoring and gossiping.
As part of the national fight to eradicate bullying, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology announced its plans in February to station counselors in all middles schools and elementary schools.
Choi Yun-jeong, a counselor at an elementary school in Seoul, came to attend the conference to understand the medical consequences of bullying. “Fifth and sixth grade girls come to me a lot to talk about their problems,” Choi sad.
Despite their age, children are perceptive of the social hierarchy and tensions that breed the bullying problems.
“Shockingly, the bullies are well aware of their own problems. They even understand that they are assertive and have anger management problems.” Pressured to keep their social status by afflicting others, they too suffer from an immense sense of guilt.
She believes providing an opportunity for a sincere discussion. “Often, guided conversation can help. I’ve sat with the children and helped them talk things out. They don’t want violence, they are just kids.”