One L. Goh, the 43-year-old South Korean immigrant who is charged with killing seven people Monday at a tiny Christian College in Oakland, California, reportedly felt picked on by members of his mostly Korean school community.

“People at the school ‘disrespected him, laughed at him,’ Oakland Police chief Howard Jordan said, according to the Associated Press. “They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students.”

Oikos University nursing instructor Romie Delariman disputed that assertion, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that Goh “can’t deal with women” and is “mentally unstable” and “paranoid.”

Jordan said Goh had gone to the school in search of a female administrator who he felt had done him wrong, but she wasn’t there when the shooting took place. He also said Goh was expelled in January for “unspecified behavior problems” and “anger management” issues. Goh, thus far, has shown no remorse for the killings, investigators said.

The Link Between Bullying and Suicide

While few would accept or condone Goh’s explanation that mistreatment led him to kill seven people, injure three others, and traumatize an entire community, the narrative that bullying causes young people to kill themselves has become a widely accepted one in recent years.

The suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, for example, became a rallying cry for national anti-bullying campaigns in the fall of 2010. Clementi killed himself shortly after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, used a web-cam to spy on him and another man as they engaged in an intimate encounter. Ravi then took to Twitter to invite others to watch a second hook-up.

Late last month, 20-year-old Ravi was convicted of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, and tampering with the police investigation. He faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years and possible deportation back to his native India. Ravi was not charged in connection with Clementi’s death, but it is unlikely that he would have been indicted apart from it and Clementi’s family sounds firm in the belief that Ravi’s actions caused Clementi’s suicide.

In his first public statements (published at the New Jersey Star Ledger) on the case, Ravi insisted that he didn’t have a problem with his roommate’s sexuality and said he didn’t take a plea deal that would have spared him jail time because he could never get up in court and concede to the charge of bias intimidation.

“I’m never going to regret not taking the plea,” Ravi said. “If I took the plea, I would have had to testify that I did what I did to intimidate Tyler and that would be a lie. I won’t ever get up there and tell the world I hated Tyler because he was gay, or tell the world I was trying to hurt or intimidate him because it’s not true.”

A lengthy New Yorker profile of the roommates asserts that it is anything but clear that Clementi was “bullied to death.”

The Problem With Simplistic Narratives

So, what’s the harm in raising the alarm about bullying? Controversy surrounding a new anti-bullying film provides some clues.

At a website for the new documentary Bully, readers are told that 13 million children will be bullied this year and 3 million will miss school because they don’t feel safe there.The movie has won rave reviews and is being widely advocated as an anti-bullying resource for children, even though it initially received an R-rating for language. But Slate writer Emily Bazelon, who has been reporting on high profile bullying cases for the past few years, worries that the film could do “some good” and “a lot of harm” because of what it doesn’t say about mental illness in its narrative of main character Tyler Long’s suicide.

Bazelon said what is missing from the storyline is Long’s diagnosis of ADHD, bipolar disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome and the fact that his parents didn’t disclose their concerns that their son might be suicidal to counselors. Ann Haas, a senior project specialist for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, shared these concerns, telling Bazelon that leaving Long’s mental health history out of the film was an “egregious omission.”

“The filmmakers had the opportunity to present bullying as a trigger, as one factor that played a role in a young person’s suicide. But to draw a direct line without referencing anything else—I’m appalled, honestly. That is hugely, hugely unfortunate,” said Haas.

Incomplete pictures like the one painted of Long’s suicide in Bully and of Clementi’s suicide in the press have the potential to create a risk of suicide contagion, which Bazelon describes as “the documented phenomenon of people mimicking suicidal behavior in light of media representations.”

“One message of this move is: ‘Bullying kills’—as if it’s a normal response to kill yourself, when of course most people who are bullied don’t do that. Young people who feel bullied could harken back to the movie, and it could be a powerful draw to suicide for them. If Tyler had been accurately portrayed as a kid with mental health challenges that were very hard for him to manage, he wouldn’t seem so attractive,” said Haas.

The filmmakers disputed Bazelon’s critique in a statement to Entertainment Weekly, saying it downplays clear evidence that Long was bullied in the “days, weeks, and months before his death,” but Slate’s deputy editor defended it, saying Bazelon was only pointing out the potential harm in a one-sided, simplistic approach to the subject.

What do you think?

Could bullying cause someone to commit murder or suicide, or do these simplistic narratives have the potential to do more harm than good?

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