A brave face hides a silent cry: The dark side of bullying

Suffering in secret: Melissa* featured herself in a photographic account of a personal story of bullying for a school assignment.
Suffering in secret: Melissa* featured herself in a photographic account of a personal story of bullying for a school assignment.

Being sworn at, pushed and shoved. Trying to change her physical appearance - her hairstyle, getting piercings, in the hope it will make her more 'likeable.'

This was the typical day in the life of a young teenage girl from Sutherland Shire. A victim of school bullying, she struggled with the effects of isolation that resulted from ongoing torment, making it unbearable to get out of bed in the morning.

So she took it upon herself to present her battle in the public arena online, to raise awareness of the dark side of bullying.

The post was published on Shire Kids, a branch of Connect Local Sutherland Shire, a website that spreads the word to the community about topics of interest in the area.

The young girl's photographic depiction, titled 'The Silent Cry' is a personal, anonymous account of how a 15-year-old victim of bullying feels overwhelmed by intimidating behaviour on the playground.

Melissa* bravely shared her story with the social sphere. A talented young girl who is passionate about sport, she says schoolyard gossip can be particularly brutal.

"I've had people say to me, don't be surprised if they wake up one day and hate me," she said. "These are words coming from people who used to be my friends.

"When people start to talk about you behind your back, it can escalate fast. It spirals into yelling and slamming doors in my face.

"I never really fit in with any groups at school. These people can be scary and make you feel uncomfortable. I just try to walk away and not give into a reaction."

Danielle Davey, who co-launched Connect Local Sutherland Shire, says the post was widely read.

"Lots of people were clicking through reading it," she said. "To have them looking at it is great, because we're all about supporting the community - giving kids and teens a voice. They're the ones who are most likely to see something online, even if it just makes them think."

To support more students, the federal government recently announced that it would provide funding to train school chaplains, designed to combat cyber-bullying in particular, so they can better identify and support students who may be the victims of online bullying.

The government has made the training mandatory for chaplains as part of its $247 million extension to the popular National School Chaplaincy Program. Training will be delivered through the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.

Minister for Education Dan Tehan says the free online training will improve the support that chaplains were already providing to students in 3000 schools.

"Our children have access to the internet 24-7 through smart phones, tablets and laptops and parents are rightly concerned about cyber-bullying, with one in five Australian school children a victim," Mr Tehan said.

"The Morrison Government has made mental health a priority and the cyber-bullying training for school chaplains will help them better support our students and address bullying.

"Parents can rest assured that chaplains, as well as teachers and school leaders, have the best tools to deal with cyber-bullying."

New figures also show Kids Helpline is in desperate need of funding, as 71,533 contacts go unanswered.

Kids Helpline, Australia's only free confidential 24/7 national children's counselling and support service, this month released statistics that revealed 51 per cent of requests for help to the service went unanswered over the first six months of 2019, due to funding shortfall.

The number of attempts to contact Kids Helpline increased from 146,292 to 148,776 in the past six months, with visits to the website increasing from 552,103 to 875,280 - up 59 per cent over the same six month period to 30th June 2019.

"A quarter of all counselling sessions now have to do with mental health concerns and one in 10 are a young person presenting with an undiagnosed mental illness," Yourtown chief executive officer Tracy Adams said.

She says Kids Helpline requires an additional $5 million annually which would enable the employment of additional professional counselling staff in order to meet the demand.

Ms Adams says for some people, connecting with Kids Helpline has been a life-saving experience, while for others it's about practical help and support at the critical moment they need someone to listen.

"We however encourage children and young people to keep trying to contact us if even if they can't get through the first time, keep trying, it is vitally important that they do," she said.

A recent research project that surveyed 1936 students in year 7-9 from 12 schools revealed 316 reported being bullied every few weeks or more often. Students who had told an adult reported less signs of anxiety and depression. But the students who were most severely bullied were the most likely to still be bullied a year later.

Study co-author and Professor Marilyn Campbell of the Queensland University of Technology, said it showed that it was essential that teachers were trained in effective methods of addressing bullying.

"Our findings and those of other studies indicate it may be time to review actions schools take when responding to telling for this recommended strategy to be effective," she said.

"It is imperative that schools and school staff effectively address bullying when it first occurs-if seeking help from a teachers is found not to be effective or indeed counter productive, then victimised students will be be less likely to seek help in the future, with the result that the victimisation may become entrenched."

*not her real name