By Mick Sweetman
Amanda Todd is now a household name, her story has been written about in media outlets large and small across the country, she has been invoked in the House of Commons around a proposed anti-bullying bill, and the emotional video she posted on youtube before she ended her life has been widely shared on social media with over 4 million views. Everyone is talking about Amanda Todd and the horrific bullying and harassment that she went through.
As I watched her video I had an emotional reaction to it, much as many people no doubt did, watching a young teen flip through dozens of cue-cards telling how she was subjected to years of harassment, both online and in person, that left her with severe anxiety and depression and feeling like she didn’t want to live anymore. It was hard to watch.
When it ended, I saw a similar video by Olivia Liv Penpraze, an Australian teen who struggled with psychosis and depression for years before committing suicide in April. In her video she details how she tried to kill herself multiple time holding up a fistful of hospital bracelets. She writes, “BULLYING! All my pain is caused by heaps of tiny comments built up over the years. ‘you’re so ugly, stupid, lame, pathetic, useless, idiotic, just go away, no one even likes you, you’re a waste of space, just go kill yourself already, you’re better off dead’ ” Penpraze later writes “Bullying needs to stop. No one deserves to be bullied ever! Please just put a stop to bullying.”
Then there was another similar video, then another, then another and another.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of videos like Amanda Todd’s online telling the world their secrets. How many people are dealing with similar issues that aren’t making videos or posting to blogs? How many of them have to die before we can convert our moral outrage and platitudes into action? And what action should we be taking?
With this on my mind, I sat down with Kate Klein, the coordinator for the Constituency Community Centres at the Student Association of George Brown College. Klein spoke to me about how students seek out the LGBTQ community centre after many of them had experience with Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools and want to find a similar space at college where they can go to feel safe and accepted.
Klein was critical of framing things as “just bullying” also thinking it was important to link the act of bullying to the systemic oppression that often motivates it. For example, instead of just using the term ‘bullying’, an umbrella term that covers a wide range of abusive power relationships, Klein suggests pairing the specific oppressions with the bullying behaviour. In Todd’s case we could then speak of ‘sexist bullying’. Other cases could be called ‘homophobic bullying’, ‘racist bullying’, ‘disablist bullying’ and so on.
However, more important than the language we use to describe bullying is working to provide supportive communities and spaces that people can access, both on and off campus. One of the consistent messages in the dozens of videos that I watched was that the people in them, mostly young teenage girls, felt that they had nobody that cared about them and that they were utterly alone.
Roger Malowany, one of a dozen counsellors at George Brown, has seen a dramatic increase in students coming to him with issues like anxiety. “When I first started here 10 years ago the biggest part of our job was doing career work. Now the majority of our work is dealing with other issues that students are experiencing.”
Malowany said, “A lot of the issues with bullying we end up talking about and dealing with in a reactive way, which fine there’s a need for that, but I really believe there’s a need to deal with bullying in a proactive way so people realize that words do hurt. That words do contribute to people doing things they shouldn’t, like self harm, and that kind of awareness is going to make people think twice before they say things.”
Bullying doesn’t stop when you leave high school, it continues in too many post-secondary institutions, at work, in social settings, even in volunteer and activist groups.
It’s time to stop treating it as something kids will get through and grow out of. It is damaging people and far from making us stronger, it is killing some of us.