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Former Bully Says School Approaches Have To Change As He Reflects On His Actions On World Mental Health Day

by : Poppy Bilderbeck on : 10 Oct 2021 15:04
National Bullying Prevention MonthAlamy

National Bullying Prevention Month is every October, and it’s not hard to see why it has to continue. Why is bullying also still seen as such an infantile concept? Especially when it has such long-lasting effects on a young person’s mental health, whether they have taken on the role of victim or even bully. 

Every morning, I woke up at 6.30am, climbed out of my duvet cocoon and stepped into the shower to cry. Every day, I would stand there, the hot tears leaking down my face, evaporating with the steam, as I stared into the gushing water, dreading the day to come. After a few minutes, I’d turn the shower off, step out, dry myself and my tears, put on my uniform and off I’d go to school.

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Childhood bullying can seem like a distant memory. Aged 21, it does feel like a lifetime ago when I was cornered in a room by 14 girls, wishing I could dissolve into the floor. But childhood bullying, whether you’re in the role of victim or perpetrator, can have an effect on one’s whole lifetime.

While I may feel like a new person now, the person I am today and my reactions to situations and others, all come as a result of past experiences, including the bullying I faced in two separate years of secondary school.

The months I spent crying, the days of dragging of my feet as I entered the classroom, the afternoons I bunked to avoid judging eyes, stinging whispers or the times I had to switch off my phone because the bullying had even followed me home.

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Bullying feels so complex – it certainly was in my case – two different groups, two different years, the same me. A stupid me, I thought, for choosing to join such a group a second time around. But you want to be a part of something – at least I so desperately did.

UNILAD spoke to a man who identifies himself as having been a bully when he was younger to see the other side of the issue and the lasting impact being a bully has had on his mental health.

Sam* admitted that he and a group of boys used to play pranks on one another at school, but that one particular peer became the sole target of his ‘jokes’. Due to how far his negative behaviour escalated, Sam ended up getting suspended.

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When considering why he classifies himself as having been a bully, Sam noted how he ‘just knows looking back on the way [he] conducted [himself]’. ‘ I know that a lot of my humour was based at the expense of someone else,’ he explained.

He said:

At school, I’d be in a boarding dorm and we’d play pranks on each other repeatedly, but I used to always do it on this one kid.

I thought he was weaker at the time and so easy bait. This may sound quite harsh and crass, but it was going through my head at the time.

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‘My attitude of humour, getting by and being able to navigate social situations, was to make jokes at other people’s expense and to highlight other people’s inadequacies,’ Sam said.

Lily*, who works for a leading children’s charity and is trained in helping children deal with bulling, noted how important she thinks it is to see beneath the ‘horrible’ nature of a bully. ‘There are normally reasons behind why they behave the way they do,’ she explained.

Lily said:

A significant one is abuse at home. Children model their behaviour off of their primary caregivers, and that behaviour is modelled both positively and negatively. If there are no negative repercussions for negative behaviour, then children see that as an okay way to treat someone.

Another route of it, is children bully others because they are bullied themselves. It can be a way of regaining control, because they are so scared of being in that role again.

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Despite Sam explaining that he did not think that his home environment affected his behaviour as a bully, he did put it down to ‘probably a hierarchal thing’.

‘In my head at the time, the cool kids were the ones that played the jokes on other people and didn’t have jokes played on them. I suppose I thought it showed a sign of strength to play ‘jokes’ on people and a weakness to have them played on you,’ he said.

Sam said how his older siblings ‘taught’ him ‘practical jokes’, which also contributed to him thinking such ‘pranks’ were normal.

But he now realises it’s ‘only a joke if everyone involved is laughing, which they weren’t’.

In my case, some of my bullies were fuelled into meanness by their own unresolved issues – a school littered with unhealthy body image, eating disorders and an era of social media adding pressure to ‘look cool’. Others were powered by sheer fear of becoming the target themselves, and some appeared to have nothing wrong with their lives at all – those were the most difficult to forgive.

Forgiveness is a massive part of bullying and is often wrongly interpreted. Victims of bullying are normally quick to forgive, out of fear, out of wanting the pain to stop, out of still hoping to be part of such a group.

They are often told by society to ‘forgive and forget’ and move on – which is what I did and it did work. I’m here, alive, happier and have let go of any bad feeling towards my tormentors, but did one simple saying cure my subsequently damaged mental health? No, it certainly did not, and I have paid the price to this day.

I still have nights where as soon as my head hits the pillow, I am transported back into that very year nine classroom and left picking apart what I should have, could have, or would have done differently, to avoid such targeting.

Aged 13, I was doing my art homework at lunch when a member of my friendship group warned me that my honesty in exposing so-called b*tchiness had not been appreciated. I was viewed as ‘trying to tear the group apart’.  I then went to meet my fate, stood, half-amused and half-quaking in my pair of knock-off trainers.

It felt like a battlefront, and I was facing the stampede alone. The door swung open, in they traipsed, the onslaught had begun.

The screaming, the blaming, saying that it was my fault the group was falling apart, I had to be eliminated. Fair enough – I wasn’t sticking to the rules – for that, I accepted my defeat, but 14 versus one? It hadn’t really been a fair fight.

What I hadn’t expected (rather naively) was quite how personal the attack would become. The final nail in the coffin being: ‘I wish you were dead’, followed by a message after school telling me to go and kill myself.

Little did she know, that her words would be put into action.

33% of victims of bullying experience suicidal thoughts, according to a BBC survey, while 41% also experienced heightened anxiety.

Around three or four of the girls had given me a good yelling, the others (one, who I thought was my best friend) just stood by and said nothing.

They swooped out of the classroom as quickly as they had come in, leaving fragments of me all over the floor, with some very kind peers helping me glue myself back together.

Despite being told to kill myself, and my defeated self trying to do just that, I am still here, much happier and very glad her words didn’t win.

Sam recalled how the reason he stopped bullying his peer was due to the boy telling a teacher. ‘I don’t blame him for going to a teacher, and I’m kinda glad he did,’ he explained.

However, Lily noted how difficult it can be for children to go to a teacher who may feel like control over the situation has been lost and some instances meaning that the bullying instead just gets worse.

‘I was bullied at school and it would’ve been my worst nightmare to tell the teachers because I would be terrified of them talking to the bullies and the consequences of that,’ she said.

Lily explained how many cases she sees of teachers being told resulted in the bullying just continuing behind the teacher’s back.

Lily also explained how embarrassing it can be to admit to being a victim of bullying due to the stigma of being seen as ‘weak’ in some way. ‘You feel ashamed and if something is wrong with you,’ she said.

I never told a teacher, I just accepted my fate. I was the most sensitive, the most readily forgiving and I didn’t kick up a fuss. I just suffered in silence.

Lily noted:

In both girls and boys, the prevalence of self harm in response to bullying is so high. It’s this pattern of not ever being able to ever have space to safely communicate your emotions, or what’s happening to you, because you can’t go to your teachers, you can’t go to your parents.

Even if your parents are the most lovely in the world, god forbid they tell the teachers, god forbid they tell the school, that would be the last thing you’d want at the time. It’s a horrible cycle.

Both Sam and Lily agreed how poorly anti-bullying is taught in schools. From a lack of wanting to properly address mental health, to not being open to supporting the bully, schools can just make matters worse.

Talks or lectures around bullying also often centre around the victims of such behaviour. There are testimonials of the detrimental effect it had on the person growing up and their development, but are such talks ever truly effective in preventing such behaviour from occurring? Are bullies ever truly put off by hearing the sad tales of those who have suffered at others’ hands? And, do victims ever actually feel more encouraged to speak up?

‘In my school, if you smacked someone, that was it, you would be out, but you could give someone an eating disorder by persistently bullying them and teachers would say it was her fault, because she should eat more,’ Lily said.

Furthermore, schools are often not good at drawing the parallels between mental health and bullying, finding bullying a more tangible and thus comfortable topic of conversation. Schools think that speaking harshly about their dealing with bullying will scare bullies away, but if anything it can either add to the thrill, or damage the bully’s mental health further by not allowing them to open up, and so resultantly make things worse for the victim(s) too.

Lily detailed how mental health is ‘still so disconnected from bullying’ and that schools are often aren’t ‘a therapeutic environment where everyone is helped’.

School prevention programmes are found to only decrease bullying by up to 25%, according to the Congressional Research Service‘s report.

‘The whole school system, and how it’s set up, they have strong anti-bullying posters, but nothing realistically ever happens. This means children won’t have any trust in their teachers. Bullies too, won’t talk to the teachers, because if they explain they’ve been picking on someone due to having been feeling low, then they’re going to get detention or punished,’ Lily explained.

Sam told UNILAD that there is ‘plenty of anti-bullying education’, but he doesn’t think that ‘it’s done in the right way.’ ‘I remember having bullying talks, I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what they said. I wish I knew what the right way to educate is, but I just don’t.

‘But I think it’s got to change, because none of those talks had any effect on the way I acted,’ he continued.

Lily noted how she could ‘never relate to the anti-bullying campaigns’ either, commenting on how schools tend to be quite ‘tone-deaf’.

‘Like the advice for cyberbullying was just ‘don’t go on your phone’. It wasn’t dealing with the actual cause of the behaviour, but just trying to block off a symptom that will then just come out in a different way,’ she recalled.

Despite his own progression, Sam believes that bullying is just ‘something that will always be among kids’, which is ‘quite bleak’.

He said:

The main thing I’d try to get into their heads is the classic ‘would you want to be treated that way’. No matter how hard I acted, there was no chance I’d be able to withstand the stuff I was regularly doing/saying to other people.

It’s a cheesy and repeated,  but ‘do unto others as you would have done to yourself’ could not be more relevant here.

As Lily previously said, it’s also so important that both bully and victim are supported, which the charity she works for works hard to put into practice. The advice she would give to a victim of bullying, ‘especially with adults’, is ‘recognising you’re being bullied, what it is and what it can include.’

‘When you’re younger, you get a lot more messages around it but again, there’s that toxic judgement of weakness with adults. I think if I said to my mum ‘I’m being bullied’ she’d just tell me ‘You’re 21, you can’t be bullied’, but anyone can be bullied at any age,’ she said.

Lily noted how victims first need to ‘recognise what’s going on and call it what it is. Even if it’s just to yourself and to acknowledge you don’t deserve it. It’s never ever the victim’s fault and understanding that and that you’re not responsible is a really important factor.’

Blocking bullies online may appear to send a message, but Lily stresses that it can be a really useful step. Keeping a record of incidents and how they make you feel, talking to people you trust if you can and writing a letter, even if you don’t send it, are all tips that Lily advises if you are struggling.

‘They can never win if you are happy. If you’re in a point where you’re feeling better or can see yourself feeling better, then you’ve won,’ she said.

Furthermore, bullies can be left with damaged mental health along with long-lasting feelings of regret.

‘A lot of the time, bullies don’t recognise their behaviour as bullying. They just see it as a joke or justify it that everyone else is doing it, but later on in life, they will feel awful and the guilt can be overwhelming,’ Lily said, stressing that ‘No one wants to be horrible to anyone, there are always reasons which push people to behave a certain way which are sad realities, such as insecurities.’

Despite the impact bullies had on me, I agree with Lily that the term should not be ‘treated as this label’ or see so-called bullies ‘written off’, because that’s toxic and doesn’t solve the problem. However, negative and bullying behaviour does need to be tackled better in education.

‘How you interact as a child, impacts how you learn behaviours, which then can become harder to unlearn as you get older,’ Lily said.

Sam concluded:

It’s really horrible to think about what I was like. I think that’s what I’d want every kid to understand.

Of course the kid who’s being bullied is the victim and they’ll probably have to live with some ongoing issues, (and I’m not trying to play the victim AT ALL here, because I’m not), but as the bully, you don’t realise you’ll have to look back on yourself and really hate the person you were.

Friday, October 8, marked Hello Yellow, a day that saw thousands of schools and communities wear something yellow in support of young people’s mental health charity, Young Minds.

Today, it is World Mental Health Day and while bullying is often considered a childhood issue, its effects can be felt – both in the bully and victim – for a lifetime.

The theme of this year’s day was ‘Mental health in an unequal world‘, with a focus on those who face discrimination, which is a prevalent aspect of bullying.

If you’ve been affected by bullying and want to speak to someone in confidence, contact Bullying UK (part of Family Lives) on 0808 800 2222. The helpline service is open 9am–9pm Monday to Friday and 10am–3pm Saturday and Sunday

*Some names have been changed for the purpose of this article. 

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