The Way Forward

Recovering From The Long-Term Effects Of Bullying

SINCE THE EARLY AGE OF TWO YEARS OLD, Kaelum Buck’s childhood could be described as a sequence of numerous medical challenges, surgeries and complicated recoveries. Yet the impact of these health struggles and uncertainties was not nearly as harmful to his mental health as the bullying he experienced in his early school years. Today, at the age of seventeen, his medical challenges have long since subsided, yet the aftermath of years of bullying have left him with an even greater mental struggle: severe anxiety.

People often think of bullying as “a kid’s problem” or “just something that happens in school”. This perspective trivializes a severe issue that not only has an enormous long- term impact on both the lives of the bully and the victim, but also ignores the deep causes and triggers of bullying.

When attempting to combat bullying, it’s common to find yourself asking the question, “who is responsible for dealing with and preventing it?” and “how do we even begin to tackle it?” To answer these questions, first we need to better understand exactly what bullying is and what causes it.

According to clinical therapist David Haupt, the reason why people bully is most often because they have been bullied themselves. He states, “They battle with low self-worth and therefore try to draw an awareness and acceptance from other people through bullying.” He also points that, “It’s expected of children who come from a home where physical or emotional abuse takes place to project that over to other kids.”

For Kaelum it all started in his first year of school. He was initially bullied by one person, but eventually it turned into a group of five. “To put it the easy way, they would say a lot of mean stuff. It got to a point where my parents had to have a meeting with the school principal to see if there was anything they could do,” he recalls.

In the meeting, the school decided not to expel the encourager and offered to put Kaelum under the protection of the teachers. “So, whether I was in class, at recess, at lunch, when I got to school, when I left school, I had to stay with the teachers, for my safety.”

Bullying is common in schools, but is not restricted to its perimeter. It can happen on the bus, on the way home, or on the internet. To a large extent, the school has the opportunity to confront bullying, but we need measures that go beyond its walls.

School counsellor Ruth Hodge emphasises that isolating the victim will only create further possible avenues for bullying through ostracism. But for the victim to be free, it is important to approach the aggressor by “using the consequences of bullying as an opportunity for ‘time in’ rehabilitation of behaviour. This is where an adult talks with the bully and journeys through the process of shifting mindsets about that behavior,” she explains. “Rather than ‘time out’ where a bully is supervised from a distance (such as in detention, suspension, etc., but not engaged with; expected to sit alone and think about what they’ve done, we need to journey with them in order to ensure that the behaviour isn’t repeated.”

Ruth emphasises the need to keep justice in the minds of educators and disciplinary staff. “Justice for the victim looks like freedom to move around without fear of bullying, freedom to find a safe space at school, freedom to continue to connect with students and staff of their choosing, and access to wellbeing support as necessary.”

When isolated under the protection of teachers, Kaelum was technically out of reach for the bullies, but that didn’t prevent him from being attacked out of school. “That actually gave the bullies more of an opportunity to bully.

It got to the point where they would come to my house,” Kaelum says. His neighbours reported several attempts of the group attempting to damage his house and even the family’s car. Kaelum’s isolation at school continued to isolation in his home. “I would go home, off the bus every day, go into my room and just hide. That’s all I could do.”

David Haupt explains that isolation is actually one of the short-term impacts in the life of the victim. “They will often withdraw themselves from their peers and the wider community.” Long-term isolation can lead to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the end of year five, Kaelum was transferred to a new school. Even though he didn’t have to deal with bullying in his new school, he still had to deal with the aftermath of the previous five years. Besides severe anxiety, Kaelum also developed another long-term effect that David describes as, “...that of having difficulty in building trust relationships with other people in their social life... constantly being aware of potential bullying which puts them continually in a state of trauma. Because when you’re having a normal conversation, at any minute it can become a traumatic event.”

Recovering from the deep traumas caused by years of bullying is possible, and since the change of school, Kaelum has continued his long, help-seeking journey. “There are a lot of different resources out there. You can get a lot of different advice on how to move on or how to deal with the after- effects. I’ve been seeing a counsellor. I talk to my pastors at school. I talk to people who are interested in my story, and I have my friends who help me through the anxiety.”

During his journey, Kaelum has also had the support of his family. As he continues the battle toward recovery, he shares his story to bring this discussion one step further to finding a solution and preventing other people from facing the same.

Juliana Muniz

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