I think it is safe to say that everyone has had some experience with bullying behaviour. Whether you have witnessed it, been a victim of it or been the perpetrator of the bullying, most are familiar with some part of ‘the bullying narrative’.
In hindsight, almost everyone would agree that they haven’t acted perfectly 100% of the time. I look back at some of my actions when I was in middle school, where I was so desperately trying to fit in and I didn’t treat everyone as I should. It wasn’t until I felt excluded that I realised my own behaviour had to change. I didn’t want anyone to ever feel as isolated and lonely as I did. Then again, years later, after I watched my sister go through excruciating bullying I realised that something had to change and it had to change quickly.
I remember being 12 years old and intentionally trying to exclude a girl I didn’t get along with. To this day I am haunted by my behaviour. I was young and naive, but I definitely knew better. I also think back to an instance where a couple of my friends and I tried to change the alarm of a girl who was on ‘bell duty’ so that everyone in our boarding house was woken up at 4.30am instead of 6.30am. We thought this was a harmless prank and our actions had nothing to do with whose alarm it was, however when my parents found out about what I had done, they were furious. They couldn’t believe I would intentionally do that to someone. Then when I saw how upset and humiliated the girl was I realised how nasty my behaviour was.
It wasn’t really until a few years later when I watched my sister become the victim of atrocious bullying that I really considered just how awful this behaviour can be — behaviour that’s often normalised as part of the school experience. She became increasingly anxious and low in confidence. It was awful. I sat with her at school countless times while she cried her eyes out or was mid-panic attack because of the way bullying made her feel. These are moments that I will never forget.
What does bullying even look like?
Bullying can take so many forms. During my time at boarding school I observed all kinds of bullying. For those who didn’t feel strong enough to stand up for themselves it meant the torment was inescapable. In Grade 9 I remember returning to my dorm room to find a letter Blu Tacked to the mirror, it was addressed to myself and the 13 other girls in my dorm. It was written by a girl in our unit and contained an insult about each of us. Another time in school I remember I was sitting in the dining hall and watched a boy have a sandwich thrown at his face while he was trying to eat his lunch. At the school I attended before boarding school, I remember behind one of the bathroom doors there were nasty comments and various gossip written in Sharpie acting as a ‘Burn Book’ – Regina George eat your heart out. Thinking back even further I can remember a MySpace page that was created specifically to target one girl, in a style of, ‘like this page if you hate…’ I think everyone has a collection of stories similar to these. No matter how common they are, it doesn’t take away from how painful they are to the victims of this behaviour.
What’s the impact?
The statistics of young people with mental health issues are severe. Right now the number of youth suicides is the highest it has been in 10 years. What’s more, suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians (Beyond Blue, 2018). While I’m not saying that bullying is a direct cause of youth suicide, bullying can severely impact a person’s mental health. When you’re the victim of bullying you can feel so isolated and so hopeless that the light at the end of the tunnel begins to fade, and this can have detrimental effects on the person’s mental health. The brutal reality displayed by these facts are reason enough to ensure that we are more mindful in the way we communicate and engage with one another.
Let’s change the narrative
The effects of bullying are widespread and affect a lot of people — whether you’re the one experiencing it, doing it, or it’s happening to someone you know. But what can we do about it? So often we hear about people who are victims of bullying and it isn’t until we are directly affected through people we know and love that we stop and think. It wasn’t until I experienced bullying and then went on to witness the effect this had on my sister that I really stopped to think about the impact of my actions. The narrative changes when you see someone so close to you at the receiving end of it.. If this letter stops one bully in their tracks then it has done its job.
If we took a minute’s consideration before we spoke to one another, we could avoid a lot of damage. Being nasty is harder than being nice. Sure, it might make you feel powerful for all of a few minutes, but is it really worth it? Before you speak or push or make fun of someone, think about someone doing that to you or your sibling or your best friend. What would your response be? How would it make you feel to see someone you cared about being treated that way?
If you witness someone being bullied, step in and stand up for them. When you are on the receiving end of bullying the loneliness you feel is palpable. The difference you can make to someone by extending a helping hand makes all the difference. I think back to a few of the girls that stuck by me when I felt excluded and lonely and I will never be able to fully express my gratitude for their support during a time when I felt so isolated. I am so thankful for those girls but I am also acutely aware that not everyone is as lucky as I was and are not able to lean on a handful of people for support.
Kindness is easy, it doesn’t cost anything and goes along way. You never know the struggles people are facing in their day-to-day lives, as Plato wrote, ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’. If you can add even a small amount of joy to someone’s day, you’re doing it right.