How bullies can wreck our lives
BEFORE moving to the North Coast, Glenn* was a top photographer for a major Sydney publishing company. Talented, dedicated and popular, Glenn loved his work and did it brilliantly. He also just happened to be gay.
“I was assigned to head up a new bureau in a large provincial town west of Sydney, as chief photographer,” Glenn recalls.
“My primary colleague there was Jeremy. He was homophobic, and incensed to find he had a gay guy on his patch.”
The bullying started almost at once.
“I could do nothing right. If my life partner rode in the company car, or spent some time at the office waiting for me to finish work the bosses in Sydney would get a complaint from Jeremy. He even hung a poster with horrible homophobic imagery above my desk.
“One day he was passing me in the street. He pulled an imaginary gun out of his pocket and mimed firing it at me. I was terrified.”
Glenn's exciting new start was becoming a nightmare. He couldn't sleep and he became too scared to go to work. He didn't want to be near Jeremy.
He contacted his company's human resources department, but nobody took up his case. He filed counter-claims against Jeremy at head office, but nobody would take him seriously.
“The axe fell when Jeremy sabotaged an assignment in a remote Aboriginal community, where it had taken me a long time to gain the trust of the people. He spread a rumour that I was a racist,” Glenn says.
“I complained to the highest level – and was sacked.”
For the next four years, Glenn attempted to achieve conflict resolution. This required him to visit psychologists and doctors, both company-affiliated and independent, and involved lawyers, Workcover claims, and matters of discrimination.
Now in his late 50s and battling depression, Glenn earns his living as an untrained health worker. And Jeremy, who happened to be a close friend of the managing-director, is sitting on a fat salary.
You don't have to be a kid at school to get bullied.
You can be male or female, young or old, from any walk of life. There are men and women all over the Northern Rivers who experience or have experienced bullying.
Two Northern Rivers high schools have experienced the devastating loss of classmates in recent years. One died in a playground fight.
Another, Alex Wildman, took his own life in part due to bullying, as one of a number of factors, according to a recent coronial inquiry.
The NSW Department of Education and Training publishes guidelines for schools about how to deal with bullying, which each school may adapt according to its need.
At most schools, when a bullying allegation is made, procedures are put in motion involving the alleged bully and their targets, parents, teachers, staff, counsellors and school administration.
But bullying is hard to eradicate.
Simon is 15 years old. Now in Year 9 at a Lismore school, he's getting along fine, but during his last two years in primary and the first year at a different high school, bullying made his life miserable.
“I think they picked on me because I always tried to be nice to everybody, and they thought that was weak,” Simon says.
“I've seen other kids being bullied, too, and it's always the same things they do: teasing, name calling, and spreading bad rumours. They were sometimes either physically threatening or actually violent. They seemed to pick on the same few people all the time – usually people who act differently from others. They'd tease them about their sexuality or other stuff.
“I got physically abused a few times. Not that often, but there was always the feeling it might happen. And there was a bit of cyber-bullying. I got told by some of them that I should kill myself. This wasn't just boys. Girls joined in, too. I was a bit frightened but mostly I just wanted it to stop.”
Simon missed a lot of school in years 5 to 7. Fortunately, he's a bright kid and is making up for lost time now he's attending a school where he has plenty of friends, and his gentle, somewhat ‘Emo' presentation has become fashionable. But he feels the bullying has affected him deeply.
“If a friend isn't treating me very nicely I might snap and get angry, a bit of an over-reaction. You hear being bullied can turn you into a bully, but that's not always true. In my case, it's made me more defensive than aggressive,” he says.
How do bullies get away with it? And by what means do they sense the vulnerability of the people they pick on?
Dr Leon Petchkovsy, professor of psychiatry at the University of Queensland, says: “The research indicates bullies choose their prey by sensing body language, vocal cues, tonal modulations and rhythms in speech – they can be very clever.
“And how do they get away with it? Because we love them! We appoint them to the highest positions in government and the corporate world. It's a big plus to be a psychopath if you want to rise to the top. If we were able to do serious tests on every head of government we would certainly pick up some psychopathy in all of them, and some of them would be off the scale.”
So is schoolyard bullying an indicator that the bully will become a psychopath?
“It's an indicator they already are,” he says.
“At a grossly simplistic level, there are two things going on. One is the desire for personal power, to gain a high position in the pecking order. The other big thing is what we call early attachment dynamics. Kids who are bullied or brutalised in family relationships early in life have no way of developing appreciative empathy with others. They can't negotiate.
“This doesn't mean they can't develop unappreciative empathy; in fact, they can read people like a book, and they use that raw power to screw people over.”
Prof Petchkovsky said that bullies don't seek help, unless forced by the courts.
“There's a higher-than-average chance they will appear in court at some time, if they're stupid,” he says.
“But the clever ones will do extremely well and are more likely to turn up at the head of a corporation or government, in the army, on the sports field, or paraded as national heroes.”
In all, it seems a bleak outlook. Yet the targets of bullies can learn ways to protect themselves.
Some of the preferred options include staying away from the playground at peak times – go to the library, or find a quiet place to gather with trusted friends; not engaging with the bullying and reporting it.
Prof Petchkovsy believes children can be helped to avoid becoming bullies. “Parents can help with adequate nurturing,” he says.
“If young mums or dads get lots of support early on, they'll end up with kids who don't themselves have dysfunctional nurturing styles, because they'll be more socially skilled.
“Society needs to put a lot more effort and goodwill into the nurturers, to create a greater proportion of littlies who won't be bullies, and who will be less vulnerable to bullying; more mindful, and able to read people better.
“For example, let's imagine an adolescent girl who gets flamed on Facebook. She feels bloody awful. But if she's lucky enough to have had good nurturing, she will have enough resilience still to feel good about herself, and not to succumb to bullying.”
Even if the parent has to go back to work, the next line of defence is the child care industry, he says.
“We should pay child care workers and primary school teachers more,” he says.
“They have the most important job in the world. Get that right, and there is some hope that everything down the track will improve.”
*Some names have been changed in this story to protect identities.
Australian children can call Kids Help Line – a free, confidential telephone counselling service aimed at helping children deal with life's problems. The number is 1800 55 1800 (Australia-wide) or visit the web site www.kidshelp.com.au Another informative webpage for students is www.bullyingnoway.com.au/ Adults can contact Lifeline on 131 114 for referral to appropriate agencies.