Bullying Uncovered: Supporting Youth Most at Risk

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Bullying can impact a youth’s education, physical and emotional health, and their safety and well-being. Annual RAAPS* data consistently identifies bullying in the top youth risks—and of those reporting being bullied in the last year, 67% also flagged positively for depression (2 out of 3 youth being bullied) and 33% for suicide/self-harm (1 out of 3 youth being bullied), nearly 4x higher than the overall population.

Youth experiencing bullying are at highest risk for other serious mental health struggles, yet many times are flying under the radar of professionals and parents. Risk screening is one of the most effective ways you can help identify and support youth in need! Schools have a unique opportunity through school-wide screening, ensuring at-risk students receive appropriate intervention and referral care, while providing population-level data collection to help direct programming.

One of the most alarming things we found is that across the board 30% of our students are flagging positive for depression,” shared Sandy Rowe, Executive Director of the Pender Alliance for Teen Health (PATH). “One of the guidance counselors spoke to a girl who had flagged for suicidal ideation and was referred for follow-up counseling. She shared she had a plan and thought about it every day. The guidance counselor had been working with this young girl for a long time and she had never said anything about suicide before. When the counselor inquired as to why, the girl responded: ‘No one ever asked me the question.’

I knew then we were on the right track. This girl was under the radar. Nobody knew she was thinking about it – no one with the capacity to help her (her parents or her guidance counselor) knew she was at risk. And she was not an isolated incident, of the over 4000 kids we surveyed – 440 flagged for suicidal ideation.

It was a little dire to find out what these kids are living with every day – they are just trying to go to school, yet they have this heavy burden—it was so important that we did this. Having this data will help drive all of our work going forward.

Barriers & Best Practices

School-wide screening is not without its challenges. We asked Sandy about what she learned along the way and what she would recommend to others.

  1. Start with the 3P’s: Planning, Processes & ProtocolsIn some schools we had 60 kids that needed follow up, in other schools we had 30 – it all depended on the size of school. The protocols we put in place fostered a collaborative, confidential approach that ensured we were able to gather the population-level data we needed and still meet quickly with each student at highest risk.
  2. Find your Champions & AdvocatesWe were very lucky. We had a lot of very supportive program champions – the Superintendent of Schools, the Director of Special Students, and the principals were all very supportive of the program. Of course, some staff can be a little territorial – it’s natural that they have their own way of doing things. School by school, every time, I spoke to the guidance counselor groups prior to the survey being given at their school. I explained that we knew this was asking a lot, that we weren’t trying to increase their workload but instead provide tools and resources to support them. Finding the right champions depends on your demographics. If you have school nurses, they are on the front line, they get it. But not all students use a school nurse. If you have active parents, go to PTA meetings to engage parent advocates.
  3. Spread the Word – and Keep it Positive!It’s important to do upfront education and help control the narrative. That way the first time parents hear about the project it’s in a positive light. We are in a very conservative area of the country. It’s very rural and parents (and staff) can be skeptical. I sent out three touch points to parents before the screenings – a phone call from the principal, an email from the district, and an “opt-out” letter sent home with the students – and in it I decided to share my personal cell phone. I wanted to be proactive and help them understand the immense benefits.

Learn more about how PATH implemented RAAPS screening county-wide in this new case study: Implementing School-Wide Screening Across an Entire County: Gaining Insight & Enabling Intervention in Pender County North Carolina

*RAAPS is a validated risk screening & coaching system developed to help professionals address the risk behaviors impacting health, well-being, and academic success in 9-24 year-old youth. RAAPS tools are tailored to age and screen for exposure to social risk factors (e.g. violence, abuse, and bullying), psychosocial responses to stressors (e.g. depression and anger), and risk behaviors (e.g. suicide ideation or attempts, alcohol and substance abuse, and sexual activity).