A bullied teenage girl tells Joy Orpen how counselling at Jigsaw has helped her deal with the cycle of taunts
'I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I hadn't opened up to someone. Maybe I'd have gone the same way as those girls who committed suicide?"
These are the chilling words of 16-year-old Emma (not her real name) who lives in the west of Ireland.
She has had to endure months of systematic bullying. But mercifully she found the courage to tell her parents and was fortunate that they knew how to help her.
However, she says her school did little to break the cycle of taunts that punctuated most moments of her waking day.
Emma says the awful saga began about a year ago when some of her so-called friends began excluding her from their group's activities. They would make hurtful remarks about her looks, and try to block her physically when she was attempting to interact with the less hostile girls.
Then at the beginning of this year, things escalated.
"It started with messages on the Spillit website – where you can ask questions anonymously. There were more remarks there about the way I looked. And at school there were a couple of girls in my class who were making my life hell. I used to dread the weekends because I would spend them thinking about what was going on and I hated Monday mornings because I knew I would have to face those girls the moment I walked in the door at 8.30. Every single class just got harder and harder."
Things were no better out of school hours because the bullying would then resume on the internet. Emma was now in the depths of despair. "I don't think there was a single night I didn't cry myself to sleep."
Then a remark appeared on a different website suggesting Emma "would be better off dead". The plucky but desperate teenager went to see the school counsellor. And though she cried her heart out, all the counsellor could offer was the notion that this sort of behaviour was "typical of girls". No further action appears to have been taken.
In the middle of this year, Emma revealed the true extent of the problem to her parents who immediately sought help, and that's how she ended up receiving counselling at Jigsaw in Galway. Jigsaw is an organisation that has several centres around Ireland "to support young people's mental health and well-being".
"This is one of the best things I have ever done," says Emma. "I didn't have to keep things bottled up any more. At Jigsaw I could talk about anything at all and I was never judged. There was lots of support. I still go there as it is helping me."
She says she is now learning to cope with some of the fallout from the bullying and is better able to deal with the teenagers causing the trouble. As a result, the episodes have diminished somewhat. "I'm still getting some remarks but I am learning to deal with things more than I was."
Emma's mother says: "Thankfully we were in a position to know where to access help. Emma trusted us and was willing to engage with Jigsaw and as a family we are now trying to move on. Sadly what our daughter has experienced appears to be rife in most secondary schools in Ireland today. It is time for the schools to engage with the parents and for all of us to work together. Bullying is not a new phenomenon. However, the internet means there is no escape."
Emma also warns that bullying is prevalent in certain schools. "No one opens their eyes until it is too late and someone commits suicide. It shouldn't be like this."
Dr Gillian O'Brien, director of education and training at Jigsaw, says an all-encompassing approach to the problems of bullying is needed.
"Any response to bullying needs to be considered within the wider context of youth mental health as it is a phenomenon that can have significant and enduring impact on young people's well-being. Bullying can undermine a young person's sense of safety, belonging and confidence.
"Anything that erodes the fundamental fabric of psychological well-being needs to be addressed in a timely and comprehensive manner. On an almost daily basis we are reminded of the damage caused by bullying; in the media, by researchers, by teachers and parents but most importantly by young people themselves. How much louder do they have to shout before we will respond to their urgent cry for help," she asks.
A note on the spillit.me website cautions: "Anonymous posts will always remain anonymous. However, they can, and will be provided by spillit.me to the police for tracing in the event of an investigation."
Headstrong (Jigsaw's head office). Call (01) 4727 010 or see www.jigsaw.ie