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The Mental Impact of Bullying and Homophobia: Have We Failed Our Children?

The suicide of a 15-year-old student from Delhi Public School raises the question - have we failed our children?

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(If you feel suicidal or know someone in distress, please reach out to them with kindness and call these numbers of local emergency services, helplines, and mental health NGOs)

(Trigger Warning: Some questions could make you feel agitated. Reader discretion is advised.)

A 15-year-old student from Delhi Public School died by suicide on Thursday, 24 February. In his suicide note he wrote, "The school has killed me..... especially higher authorities."

The victim, who was dyslexic and undergoing therapy already, had taken his own life after homophobic bullying from other students.

A family member said this, on the condition of anonymity:

"Not only was he repeatedly mocked and called 'gay', he was also stripped in the school bathroom. We know that several emails were written to the school authorities. But what action was taken?"

The Academic Head of DPS Greater Faridabad was arrested for abetment of the boy's suicide on 28 February.

Could the school have done more to save the child's life? How does bullying of this kind affect a child's mental health?

We spoke to doctors and experts to try and understand.

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How Does Homophobic or Transphobic Bullying Affect A Child?

Dr Kavita Arora, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist with Children First, a mental health service, says, "The impact is different on different children. Some children will suffer an adverse impact. Others will accept it as a way of life. And some others will become bullies themselves."

"The impact of any kind of adversity or invisibilization, where something you feel as an individual is deemed wrong, not possible, not real, or not allowed, is that it leads to you feeling that whatever your inner voice and inner experience says, can't be real."

Equal rights activist Harish Iyer says, "Imagine being cornered to a point where you have no support, where there's complete invalidation of your feelings, and where everyone's different from you, and you're the one blamed for being different. It's very stressful, especially in schools."

"I'm a suicide survivor. I tried taking my life three times because I was bullied for being a survivor of child sex abuse. This happened in college. No one hit me or beat me.It was verbal abuse with people teasing and bullying me that drove me to take this drastic step."
Harish Iyer, Equal Rights Activist
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What Are The Long-Term Impacts Of These Experiences?

According to Dr Arora, hurtful and invalidating experiences occurring in a repeated and sustained manner over time are known to result in emotional trauma, which in turn has a profound impact on the developing brain and future learning.

Some children may respond with repression or suppression, because they feel this part of them needs to be hidden. It's not about the one act of aggression alone, it's about taking away the possibility of a full life.

"This is one of the biggest effects on this community - where that part of you has to remain invisible, if you wish to be safe in a society that wants you to conform to an identity based on your gender or sexuality."
Dr Kavita Arora, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Children First

It's not a single event or act that is responsible. It remains with you for life. The impact is much deeper than the specific event, or how the child felt after.

There's also little to nothing in the way of role models for them.

All we see are some examples of adults in Bollywood which are hypersexualized. Children don't get to see examples of people who are ordinary.

They don't know whether there are other ordinary children who have this identity and so don't know if it's okay to have this identity. They don't have fictional characters or literature which tells them it's okay to be and feel like this.
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What Can Schools Do?

Schools can start by sensitising teachers and training them on practicing inclusivity in the classroom. However, this is easier said than done.

In 2021, a gender-neutral teacher training manual on the NCERT's website that educated teachers on gender diversity and inclusivity of transgender children, was taken down following outrage from some groups stating that "it does not conform to their gender realities and basic needs".

The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), following the complaint, asked for "rectification of anomalies" in the manual.

So what can schools do to be more inclusive of non-binary, gay, or trans students?

They can start by having an inclusive and trained counsellor on campus for students to talk to.

"Schools should have counselors who are trained and sensitised. Because you want them to add value, not take away value," says Arati Kedia. Arati works as an intermodal therapeutic practitioner.

"Schools need to create safe spaces where the children can report any bullying or harassment they face," she adds.

Harish Iyer says that reincorporating the manual into the NCERT to sensitise teachers, would be a great way to start creating a safer, more inclusive environment.

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"As far as gender or sexuality is concerned, there are no spaces or forums a child can approach - no special teacher or a group where it's accepted and talked about. There's no space for them to discuss how to interpret the experiences they're having. It's not about the singular instance of bullying."
Dr Kavita Arora, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Children First

Apart from these steps, parents can start by providing an environment that is inclusive of gay, trans and non-binary people.

This would include actively sensitising their children about homophobia and transphobia, and making them understand and empathise better.

A strong relationship has been established between sexual orientation and suicidal behaviour worldwide. The only way to prevent more children from taking their own lives or living lives marked by trauma is to create a more inclusive environment, first at home and second at school.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Faridabad   Suicide   Mental Health 

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