Ever since safe schools was slain in the battle of political point scoring, the subject of bullying in schools has been left unchecked. Until now.
Bullying is an epidemic.
I don’t mean that in the hyperbolic sense, or with any kind of emotional charge. I mean that bullying – specifically, bullying in schools – is an almost systemic issue, with one in four students being made victims.
It’s harder than ever for those victims to find respite, too. For all the wonders that technology and social media has brought, it has also meant virtually 24-hour access to whomever someone may wish; for better and for worse.
While victims of bullying once could find relief from their tormentors outside the schoolyard, those tormentors can now continue their onslaught, with those on the receiving end given little hope of escape, short of purging themselves of all things online.
It’s not just theoretical, either.
A massive 64% of female students reported being cyber-bullied last year, and an even more concerning 84% of students who were being bullied in real life were also bullied online.
Considering we know that bullying can have lifelong effects on someone’s wellbeing – including an increase in rates of depression, and long-term decreases in academic performance – this non-stop abuse should have had alarm bells ringing a long time ago.
But, for whatever reason, political or otherwise, the epidemic, it seems, has been treated as “out of sight, out of mind”.
Sure, we’ve had the usual governmental grandstanding, denouncing the nastiness that bullying is. But words really can’t compare to actions.
Especially when those actions have been used to previously demonise what could well have been an effective plan to tackle bullying in its most insidious forms, by way of the Safe Schools program.
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In the program’s place? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
It is perhaps this apparent lack of action that makes the Victorian government’s announcement yesterday feel so significant.
The state’s Minister for Education, James Merlino, announced not only his displeasure in the concept of bullying on the whole – as per usual political standard – but, more importantly, that his government would be working with youth mental health agency Headspace to ensure that adequate support is provided to those in need.
In a statement, the Minister highlighted the economic aspect of bullying, partnering with Pricewaterhouse Coopers to find that the average annual cost to the state of bullying in schools is a massive $135 million to $645 million per school year group.
But it is not the financial aspect that we should be worrying about, and the government should be commended for understanding this.
Indeed, it is not the budgetary understanding that makes this announcement feel so impactful.
It is the understanding of the deep, lasting effects of bullying – and, more still, the need for proper support services in combating these effects – that makes you think that maybe, just maybe, this could make a difference.
“Every child in every school deserves to be able to complete their education without being bullied, and also to be supported when they are battling mental health issues such as anxiety or depression,” the Minister said, unveiling the Headspace-supported Better Access to Mental Health Support and Suicide Prevention Pilot programs.
In the programs, Headspace will provide clinical mental health services for students aged 12 to 18 during and outside of school hours, in both Headspace centres and through the phone and web-based eHeadspace service.
These programs feel like they have genuinely been designed in hopes of combatting the ever more invasive hands of bullying, rather than as an opportunity to grab a few headlines, or relish in cabinet-wide back patting.
Early identification of mental health risk can be vital in effectively tackling it, and it is in this regard that the also announced Suicide Risk Training package for school staff – with the aim of identifying and responding to secondary students who may be at an increased risk of suicide – also shows an understanding of the realities that students face.
While it is tempting to hail this as the bullying solution to end all solutions, the lived experience tells us that statements of intent – even the most grandiose – more often than not go nowhere.
But with the government actively working with the state’s largest mental health service provider – in other words, the provider with the most intimate understanding of how damaging bullying can be – you could be forgiven for getting your hopes ever so slightly up.
Maybe it’s optimism, maybe it’s the stone’s pace at which we have seen governments on the whole take in approaching this issue in the past, or maybe, just maybe, it’s the admittance from our state leaders that enough is well and truly enough.
But these programs feel like they have genuinely been designed in hopes of combatting the ever more invasive hands of bullying, rather than as an opportunity to grab a few headlines, or relish in cabinet-wide back-patting.
Whether or not this announcement makes any difference remains to be seen. But dammit, something needs to be done. Bullying is not something that should be excused as a fact of life, and it should not be accepted as a part of growing up.
Bullying hurts. Bullying can cause a lifetime of suffering for those most vulnerable.
Sadder still, in far too many cases, bullying kills.
Regardless of your level of cynicism, and whatever your political persuasion may be, our state government deserves one hell of a round of applause for at least recognising that.