For many, childhood and adolescence are their most formative and memorable years. Children make lifelong connections and discover their own identities. Adults recall the good times with their friends and the struggles of growing up.
For many, however, the recollections are not always pleasant. Instead of joy, these memories are full of shame, self-criticism and self-loathing.
Each year, approximately 3 million students report being bullied at school. The National Bullying Prevention Center defines bullying as intentional behavior that hurts, harms, or humiliates a student, either physically or emotionally, and can happen while at school, in the community or online.
Severe bullying affects students well beyond their childhood years. A 1987 study done by the University of Pittsburgh found strong links to various physical and mental health risks. In the long term, bullying leads to stress, aggressive behavior and trouble communicating with others.
“People definitely have a passion for helping students with the issue of bullying,” said Yanel Casanova, licensed mental health counselor. “Its important to know that … resources are available to them.”
Casanova is the director of the Partners in Adolescent Lifestyle Support (PALS) program at the University of Florida Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital.
PALS is one of Alachua Countys many resources that combat bullying. Through in-school counseling and peer support groups, PALS seeks to promote an environment of tolerance and diversity in schools all over Alachua County.
“PALS is so great to have because … we provide free and individual counseling to the students,” said Casanova. “If the student is coming in for bullying, we are definitely willing to address it. We work with the school if the bullying is a big issue or a safety issue.”
The program began in 2001 with the goal of providing in-school therapy and counseling to students. Throughout the years, PALS has partnered with the UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital, the UF department of psychology and Alachua County Schools. As of spring 2017, the program is in every public high school in Gainesville, along with St. Francis Catholic Academy, A. Quinn Jones Center, Fort Clarke Middle School and Kanapaha Middle School.
Under the supervision of licensed professionals, UF masters and doctoral students offer counseling and group therapy on issues ranging from anger-management to self-esteem, body image, violence and suicide.
“People that are struggling … will come together and just talk about stuff and have a support club,” Casanova said. “Its a really nice support group to have for teens.”
In addition to individual counseling, each school incorporates some of its own aspects into the program. A notable example is Buchholz High Schools Life is Greater Helping Teens Survive (LIGHTS) club.
The LIGHTS club was created in 2011 by a group of students to help a friend suffering from depression. LIGHTS teaches students how they can prevent bullying. It also helps students who suffer from abuse or mental health issues.
“LIGHTS hopes to be a place where any student can feel safe and feel heard,” said Kirsten Flamand, the clubs sponsor and a Buchholz teacher. “We’ve had some really vulnerable students stop by our club, and our kids are very accepting and supportive.”
The club meets twice a month where the members engage in discussion about various issues, such as depression, bullying and relationships. They make their presence known to the school by offering support to those students who may suffer from these issues. Club members have even reached out to the families of two suicide victims who were Buchholz students. They attended the funerals, sent flowers and planted a tree to honor the students.
“The anti-bullying movement and suicide prevention are issues on everyone’s radar,” Flamand said. “Many people are ready to help.”
PALS is not the only anti-bullying resource in Alachua County. The River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding was founded in 2011 as a means to reduce violence among young people and create a peaceful environment with effective conflict management strategies.
Programs include communication and self-esteem courses, restorative justice and police and youth dialogue. Through these, the organization has teamed up with several schools in order to promote peacebuilding and nonviolent conflict management as a means to end bullying.
“There’s a whole system of things that happen before somebody becomes a bully, and I think theres a conversation that needs to be had about the empathy for the bully and understanding what constitutes bullying,” said Gabrielle Byam, the centers program facilitator.
Byam works closely with the youth on a curriculum of social-emotional learning. These classes help young people learn nonviolent conflict resolution skills, anger management strategies and mediation practices. Through these skills, students can gain an understanding on effective communication, and how it can be used to combat bullying and help those who resort to bullying.
“(The classes) and the young people that we work with help develop the skills, hopefully, to have a conversation,” Byam said.
One of the centers biggest initiatives on this issue includes its incorporation of theater and art into its movement. The center and the young people it works with created a piece called The Anti-Bullying Scenes in which participants performed several scenarios involving bullies and victims of bullying. The goal was to create empathy for both the bully and the person being bullied while helping to start a conversation on how to combat the problem in a peaceful manner.
“I think thats how you stop the problem and how you address the problem,” Byam said. “You have to figure out what causes the problem, not just (look at) the behavior.”
Anti-bullying initiatives continue to grow in Alachua County through the efforts of professionals and the students themselves. These programs and initiatives continue to form a community ready to help any student dealing with this all too common problem.
“It is not necessary to be silent,” said Flamand.
We can help.
Photography by John Sloan