Seanad Speech on Bullying (14/11/12)

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I welcome the Minister to the House.  I welcome the motion and the initiative taken by my Fine Gael colleagues in tabling it.  Fianna Fáil fully supports it and has not tabled an amendment.  It is important for my party to support it and not to put the matter to a vote.

 

I express my sympathies, and those of my colleagues, to the families of those who have lost loved ones to suicide in recent times, including Ciara Pugsley and Erin Gallagher.  Some Members were present in the audiovisual room when Ciara’s dad, Jonathan, gave a touching account of his family’s experience on the issue.  In the gentlest, most dignified way, he put it up to all of us to work together and co-operate on all sides of the House to ensure effective strategies are in place to tackle bullying.  We owe it to the families affected by this to ensure we do everything we can to ensure that is done.

 

Bullying is a major problem.  As Senator Eamonn Coghlan pointed out, it is not a new problem but it has new forms.  Physical bullying, which makes up the majority of bullying incidents, means that even though kids may dread going to school, they know they will get out the gate and can go home.  If they are being bullied in other physical environments, they can find some space where the bullies cannot get to.  However, that is not the case with Facebook or text messages and the advent of cyberbullying means our young people can be persecuted 24 hours a day and cannot get away from it.  Statistics show that cyberbullying is a much smaller aspect of the problem but in many respects it is more severe because it is impossible for young people to get away from it.  The recent worldwide survey of Headstrong showed the extent of bullying.  Adolescents were asked questions about their personal experience and over 40% said they had been bullied at some point.  It is quite shocking and amounts to almost half of all young people on a monthly, weekly or daily basis, which means it is constant bullying and intimidation.

 

Members have pointed out that bullying takes many different forms, including physical bullying, verbal intimidation and social exclusion.  Girls are the most vicious at isolating other girls in their class and excluding them.  The pain and the sense of being cut off from one’s peers is really tough.  It is my experience that it goes on in girls schools.  We need to do so much more to tackle bullying.

 

I do not seek to amend the motion.  It is great more work is being done on bullying.  I welcome the initiative of the Minister to set up the working group, which I gather is working well.  Hopefully, the timescale will be met, although it has been pushed back a little towards Christmas.  It is important that the job is done right so I hope the Christmas deadline can be met.

 

Over the summer, I did a lot of work on youth mental health, which is an issue I have spoken about on several occasions.  I am personally interested in the topic.  Fianna Fáil had its national conference in Galway in June and I met groups such as Headstrong, See Change, Suicide or Survive.  There were representatives of teacher unions, management bodies and the Irish Primary Principals Network and others at the national conference.  We wanted to start a conversation on what we need to do on youth mental health.  Bullying was a major part of it and came up in all discussions.  Equally, the point was made that the issue was broader than bullying.  We must examine the consequences for young people and the emotional impact on them.  We must give them the skills to get through.  If young people feel they are in desperate emotional pain or in a hopeless situation because of depression, problems with their body image or sexual orientation, problems in the home such as marital breakup and financial pressure or bullying, these are different causes but the impact is the same.  This was the message that came through to me from different groups.  It is good that there is a spotlight on bullying and we must ensure we have more effective strategies in place in our education system.

 

The Minister referred to parents, which is a crucial aspect.  We must ensure proper co-operation so that parents have a role to play.  If children are on Facebook when they are too young to sign up to it, maybe it is because parents are not aware that they must engage further and need to know what their kids are looking at.  They also need to know the risks to look out for.  Schools cannot do everything but they have a strong part to play and we need to empower schools in that respect.

 

I sent a copy of our mental health paper to one of the Minister’s officials after we published it.  I ask the Minister to read it because it is genuinely based on a lot of consultation.  There are many sensible suggestions, many of which are straightforward.  An example is ensuring every school has its own mental health promotion plan so students and teachers and parents and the community are involved in it.  School should also have access to services outside, such as jigsaw centres and specialised services for dealing with young people.  We should promote peer support, both in the bullying context and elsewhere, and encourage young people to stand up for each other.  The Minister is very aware of the BeLonGTo campaign and its powerful message that equipping young people to stand up and not tolerate any kind of intimidation is one of the most powerful things we can do.

 

I did not want this to be my main point because I did not want to approach this from a political perspective but it would be remiss of me not to ask the Minister to reconsider the decision on guidance counsellors.  It is having an impact, which has been stressed to me over the past number of months.  Without having a person in the school who can support young people and have the time and space to provide counselling support, a gap exists.  It is one of the many suggestions in our report and I hope the Minister considers them.

 

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