Nine teenagers were charged Monday with bullying Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Mass., until she committed suicide. The charges include stalking and statutory rape. Phoebe was 15 when she took her own life on Jan. 15 after enduring ceaseless bullying since the start of school in September. She had moved to the United States from Ireland and was reportedly harassed because she was pretty and other students were jealous of her.
It’s very likely, however, that Phoebe's bullies knew something more about her than the fact that she was a pretty girl. They may have intuited that she was more sensitive than they were or that her sense of self had yet to fully develop.
Bullies are good at detecting victims who feel things deeply or who are unsure of themselves because, underneath it all, they are on the run from their own feelings and uncertain of their own worth. That’s why they band together and go on the offense as a group. They can pretend to be more valuable than their targets and less vulnerable.
Make no mistake about it: The suffering of Phoebe Prince had to have been sport for these teens. Dehumanizing her had to have been intoxicating. They were getting high together. Hating another person, like any drug, has the effect of distancing people from their own deep doubts and despondency.
In the age of the Internet and Facebook, more teens than ever are busy getting the surface of their lives to look good, while their inner, emotional lives are built on the most fragile ground imaginable. Bullying, like all drugs, can become epidemic in such circumstances.
Any serious attempt to control bullying should acknowledge these facts and publicize them to the student body. In a controlled population like a school system, it is possible, from early grades, to instill in young people a psychiatrist’s view of those who perpetrate violence toward others—as broken, rather than brazen; gripped by emotional disorder, rather than in control. School administrators would be wise to adopt this medical model of bullies. Trying to stop bullying with an afternoon of detention or three-day suspensions is as incomplete a solution as trying to stop violence in society with one to three-day jail sentences. Bullies should be removed from school until such time as a psychologist or psychiatrist can reasonably assure the school system that the bully will not injure others—even if that takes months of home schooling.
The response to virulent epidemics always has to be motivated by concern rather than hatred for those infected, and always has to include isolation of those who are contagious.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for Fox News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life Through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement including www.livingthetruth.com. Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.