Bullying a cause of suicide, not a rite of passage
By Donald W. Meyers
The Salt Lake Tribune
When John Halligan's son Ryan committed suicide six years ago at the age of 13, he and his wife tore the house apart looking for the suicide note that would explain why he did it.
They didn't find one. But when Halligan, then an engineer with IBM in Vermont, logged onto his son's instant messaging account, he found the answer he was looking for: Ryan Halligan was a victim of cyberbullying.
Halligan was the keynote speaker at the 10th Annual Suicide Prevention Conference at Brigham Young University on Friday. The conference was conducted by the Utah County HOPE Task Force, a coalition of community groups focused on preventing suicide, and attracted educators, social workers and students.
Greg Hudnall, HOPE's executive director, said the group this year is attempting to get at the root causes of teen suicide, including bullying in its many forms.
"People don't realize the impact of bullying," he said.
Barbara Blotter, student services director at Nebo School District, said students who know a friend is being bullied can let counselors or parents know, especially if the friend threatens suicide. Because some signs of suicidal behavior -- depression, drastic changes in behavior, falling grades, feelings of loneliness, extreme sensitivity, impulsive behavior or drug and alcohol abuse -- can be mistaken for teen angst, Blotter said the key is erring on the side of caution.
"One of the things we do as counselors, if we have a question [about whether a student is suicidal], we don't let them leave until we notify their parents and let them know," Blotter said in an interview.
Cyberbullying makes school administrators' jobs more difficult, Blotter said. The problem: The bullying takes place on home computers outside school -- and outside a principal's jurisdiction. But Blotter said the school can intervene if the online bullying disrupts school life.
Halligan said bullying was a major factor in his son's suicide.
A bully and his friends targeted Ryan, who had problems with learning and physical coordination, in fifth grade. The taunting became so bad that in seventh grade, Ryan asked his parents to take him out of school. He said talking to the principal would only make matters worse, since he would be labeled a "tattletale."
Instead, Halligan and his son turned to one of their favorite movies, "The Karate Kid," about a bullied teen who develops self-confidence and defeats his tormentor through the discipline of martial arts. But Ryan chose kick-boxing instead of karate, and he and his father practiced in the basement.
Ryan had a showdown with his oppressor, and he thought the bullying was over. Near the end of the school year, he said he had befriended the bully, which Halligan now believes was a mistake.
That summer, he said Ryan spent most of his time on the computer. After Ryan's suicide, Halligan learned from Ryan's friends online and through chat logs that Ryan was the target of a rumor that he was gay, a rumor spread by the bully who was supposedly now his friend...