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"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." – Maya Angelou

The End of Bullying and Abuse: An Illusion?

Suggestions for the victim, the bully and the bystanders

It was no secret who the schoolyard bullies were when we grew up. We may even have vivid recollections of the tormentors who soured our lives, years ago. Today we may chuckle at the incident, if it was short-lived and little harm was done.


Unfortunately, millions worldwide are not so fortunate, and pay a dear price.


I was in grade four when we moved to the city. I often had to pick up bread and milk from the corner café, seven street blocks away. Three boys, a year or two my senior, lived in an apartment building along the way. The ringleader had a sixth sense for when I would be on my errant. Like trolls under a bridge, they patrolled the route and would not let me pass. Even if I crossed over to the other side of the busy street, they’d run across to taunt and shove me around. Taking an alternative route added an unwanted extra kilometre to my path.


Today, bullying and abuse have taken many different shapes and forms. It has become so woven into our society that we barely notice it. It’s accepted as a deviant of normal. We shrug the shoulders. It has become one of society’s silent shames. We don’t talk about it because it’s “so negative” and there’s “little one can do about it.” Many are of the opinion that those who claim to be victims of abuse are either exaggerating, lying, or to spineless and deserve their misfortune. Ignorance, apathy and denial allows the culture of bullying and abuse to prosper.


Abuse stretches across entire lifespans.
    • Some abuse starts in infancy
    • Cyberbullying
    • Spousal abuse
    • Bullying at school
    • It doesn’t stop when people become adults
    • Workplaces and tertiary teaching institutions bullying
    • Elderly abuse.


One in three children report having been bullied and 10-14 % suffer under chronic bullying.


Bullying and abuse involve several role players:
    1. The bully (The “pure” bully/abuser/perpetrator)
    2. The victim
    3. The bystanders (not always present)
    4. The bully/victim (Themselves victims of abuse, they bully those “weaker” than themselves.)


Bullying is the systematic abuse of power:
    • It is intentional harm-doing
    • Carried out repetitively
    • Always involves an imbalance of power
    • Is about judging
    • Is about establishing who is more worthy, important, popular or powerful.


According to the bully’s philosophy, people are either superior or inferior.

The bully has a poorly developed self-image, gets a boost in self-esteem, and usually suffers from a fixed mindset. They draw vast satisfaction from the adoration they receive from bystanders, who often laugh out of fear or deem themselves helpless, incapable of intervening.


The severity of bullying stretches across an entire spectrum:
    • On the far left is the innocent, good-hearted tease.
    • However, if teasing becomes relentless, it can result in harm
    • Still on the left is the traditional benign schoolyard bully
    • Toward the middle and right, the more aggressive bullying with physical or emotional harm (abuse)
    • To the extreme right, abuse which ends in death of the victim, either due to suicide or being killed by the abuser.


Bullying can be direct, such as shoving, beating up, serious physical harm or only name-calling. It can be subtle: such as constantly singling out individuals as being stupid, fanatical or a non-team player, when they stand for principles or show individuality.


Relational bullying involves being deliberately left out, marginalized, treated as if invisible, or having lies or half-truths spread about them.


Bullying is found in all societies. Its purpose is to gain high status and dominance.


Bullies are found in all socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Pure bullies are strong, are highly popular and have good social and emotional understanding. They know what they’re doing, although they’ll often deny the presence of abuse.


Victims can be withdrawn, unassertive, and can have poor emotional and social understanding. They are often superior in intellect and gifts than bullies, but are in less powerful positions. If enough harm is done over time, serious depression and PTSD may develop.


Bully/victims tend to be aggressive, easily angered and low on popularity. They are bullied, hence they bully those weaker than themselves.


Workplace abuse and bullying:

Is based on several factors, such as:

    • Age
    • Disability
    • Training/education
    • Gender/sex
    • National origin
    • Race/color
    • Religion
    • Pregnancy


It can be intentional or unintentional.


This injustice, abuse or harassment can be so ingrained in an organization’s culture and practices, that “an identifiable perpetrator,” is absent. Institutional injustice is often “legalized.” We also see this in the military and in universities and colleges.


The abuse can be executed by pure bullies in positions of power, but is often done by bully/victims.


Bullying in the workplace (or university/military/police) takes place in settings where individuals have little say in so far as autonomy of their choice of:

    • team (co-workers/colleagues/supervisors)
    • time
    • task
    • technique is concerned.
    • Escaping the milieu is often not that simple.


Physician and medical student abuse has serious implications.

If unrelenting, the abuse can lead to:

    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • poor health
    • burnout
    • suicidal ideation
    • substance abuse and addiction.


Physician burnout is often a symptom of abuse, of a medical system that is failing its members.

Help is available for physicians burdened under unrelenting stress, and struggle with mental health issues, but they are then often exposed to punitive measures by their respective colleges. The impact that it has on the wellbeing of the physicians who have to take care of patients is critical, but usually ignored by respective administrations. 



In the United States the number of physicians who commit suicide every year amounts to 400. Medical students and residents in similar fashion can suffer greatly in systems and training scenarios where little real help is available. The situation continues due to the denial of the existence or the severity of the situation. It has become ingrained in the fabric of organizations and institutions. By the time many students and residents complete their training, they sit with an incredible student-debt, plus PTSD. This phenomenon is not restricted to North America.


The existence of toxic and poisonous workplace and teaching cultures often continue, due to lack of accountability and disclosure. It remains a well kept secret. Many physicians object to being part of a “well-paid factory-worker scenario,” or practicing “conveyer-belt medicine.” If they insist on practicing responsible and ethical medicine, they are often ridiculed, marginalized and victimized.


Mega administrations run vast bureaucracies, where doctors and nurses and other frontline workers have become mere numbers, insignificant pawns. In private enterprise, medicine is a strict business, corporate bodies exert infinite power over the lives of patients and wellbeing of affiliated physicians.


Many healthcare workers remain silent, fearful of repercussions. Some get pulled into a scenario of becoming a bully/victim. Most simply suffer in silence.


The public, for the most part is unaware of this unrelenting systematic abuse that takes place in the medical community.


Adverse health outcomes of chronic harassment and abuse:
    • Unrelenting stress negatively affects individuals’ immune systems
    • Making them prone to infections and multiple chronic ailments.
    • The individual is constantly exposed to fluctuations in cortisol, adding to chronic health conditions.
    • Health deterioration
    • Negative impact on their job
    • Negative effect on family wellbeing
    • Threatens the inner world of the victim by shattering their perception about fairness and justice
    • It can lead to anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and drug abuse
    • Sexual abuse and harassment has even more devastating long-term effects.


Coping mechanisms abound. Often unhealthy actions can follow:

    • smoking
    • alcohol use
    • substance use and abuse and even addiction
    • Increases in sick calls
    • Increased social isolation. Vicious circle
    • Career advancement is hindered
    • Income can drop as individuals try and survive and go more often on stress leave or unpaid leave.


In Canada, about 0.5 % of sexual assaults cases reach the courts. Only 0.2 % end in convictions. In 2014 the number of self-reported sexual assaults were 633,000. Only 1,357 convictions followed. Why?


Why does this abuse continue in our schools, homes, colleges, universities, workplaces and hospitals—in our society at large?
Why is so little done?
    1. Fear: of the victim and the bystander
    2. Powerlessness: of the victim and bystander
    3. Apathy/Indifference
    4. It has become part of the fabric of our society: nothing shocks anymore
    5. Don’t want to be know as a squealer: learned to keep mouth shut
    6. Intimidation with more abuse
    7. Belief it won’t make a difference to intervene
    8. Denial—the abuse “isn’t happening,” or, “What I’m doing is not abuse”
    9. Punishment of the victim
    10. Avoidance of publicity
    11. Acceptance of victim status: used to suffer in silence
    12. Retaliation—punishment of whistleblowers
    13. The authorities/management/leaders/instructors are involved—part of the culture of abuse and bullying


What can be done?

Victims:

    • Speak up
    • Be brave: bring awareness. Refuse to back down.
    • Don’t let the bullies win!
    • If possible, get out/away from perpetrator or situation or change workplace if possible
    • Develop grow mindset: believe and realize you have value and work harder on finding hope and purpose
    • Learn coping mechanisms. Pity the bully
    • Revenge is never a solution or option
    • Don’t harm yourself! Find help
    • Don’t isolate yourself
    • Get support/therapy/regular exercise/friends


Bullies:

    • Wake up: time for honest introspection.
    • YOU ARE CAUSING HARM!
    • Acknowledge that there is a problem! Stop the denial
    • Stop the ignorance, stop the apathy
    • Get help: learn what is a growth mindset and how you can escape your fixed mindset
    • Get therapy: there is effective treatment: lifelong maintenance required
    • Learn compassion, learn to care, learn to be less judgmental
    • Assess the damage done by your actions (or apathy)
    • Become an advocate to stop abuse

 

Bystanders:

Schools:

    • Intervene!
    • Change the school MINDSET: there is no neutral ground
    • Know the children
    • Support victims
    • Help bullies to change
    • Teach bystanders to become victims’ aids


In the workplace/military/universities/hospitals:

    • Acknowledge there is a problem!
    • Listen to your employees and team
    • Root out the bullies: from the top
    • Less meetings—action is urgently needed!
    • Zero tolerance for disrespect: through ALL the ranks
    • Zero tolerance for intimidation
    • Stop covering up abuses
    • Terminate creation of bully/victims (Bully less powerful, then they bully those under them)
    • Open channels of communication—adopt collaboration in the workplace
    • Get rid of reward and punishment—foster intrinsic motivation
    • Open up constructive feedback/critique channels
    • Increase autonomy of staff


Police/Courts/Authorities:

    • Take a complaint of spousal abuse serious: be willing to believe stories of abuse
    • Investigate. Confirm. Then intervene
    • If a woman knocks 16 times on your door, claiming she fears for her life, take her serious
    • Don’t punish/belittle/ridicule the victim
    • Don’t tell the victim she should have closed her legs


Will we ever see the end of bullying and abuse?

We can, but it will only happen it we acknowledge the problem.


As long as schools don’t know what’s going on in their hallways and classrooms, administrations refuse to abandon outdated and cruel abuse practices, and workplaces and organizations continue to cover up abuse and participate in it, nothing will change or improve.


For as long as we blame the victim,

    • tolerate and protect the bully,
    • things will only get worse.
    • Victims will suffer in silence,
    • suicides will continue
    • and our society will suffer
    • for our lack of integrity, compassion and intervention.


We can have more compassion. We can care more. We can bring hope. We can bring healing. We can break the vicious cycle.


It’s a choice.


Be more aware, and speak up.


Let’s choose hope.

 

Now it’s your turn: Is it possible to break the cycle of abuse? Tell me in the comment section.


References:

  1. Long-term effects of bullying. Dieter Wolke, Suzet T Lereya. Arch Dis Child. 2015 Sep; 100(9):879-885 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4552909/
  2. Discrimination, Harassment, Abuse and Bullying in the Workplace. Cassandra A. Okechukwu et al. Am J Ind Med. 2014 May:57(5):573-586. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3884002/
  3. Mindset: The new psychology of success. How we can learn to fulfill our potential. Carol S. Dweck. 2008. Ballantine Books – New York. ISBN 978-0-345-47232-8
  4. Rosemary Westwood. http://www.metronews.ca/authors.rosemary-westwood.html
  5. We lose a medical school full of physicians every year to suicide: An interview with Dr. Pamela Wible http://bit.ly/1Olty3G

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