It’s the problem every parent or teacher dreads: when a child admits he or she is being bullied. But what can be done to deal with a problem that’s a serious health issue, and why do so many adults turn a blind eye to children in distress? Team Y investigates.
“If bullies are weak, then why is it that I end up in tears and alone?” This is a concern raised by Margaret*, a former student at one of the foreign schools in the Sultanate, and a victim of bullying.
Sad, dejected, and, as Margaret puts it, “broken from within”; that’s what bullying does to an individual.
But, if her past experience is anything to go by, it can also lead to feelings of suicide.
Margaret’s battles with bullies began when she was just 12.
Coming from an all-girls’ school in her hometown in India to a mixed school here in the country, she found it hard to settle in.
Years went by but her situation didn’t change. She could never find any friends, and even if she did, they’d be quacks looking for cheap laughs at the expense of hurting her.
Her only achievement from her schooling here, she says, is overcoming the trauma she endured.
Of course, today, Margaret speaks to Y about the perils she faced – but she points out that there was a day in her life when she decided to end it all. A day she can never forget.
“Pills, and lots of them,” the 18-year-old says, in a broken tone. “That’s what I swallowed.
“I remember not being able to face my parents, siblings or my classmates – and for all I knew, I couldn’t bear to look at myself anymore. I was staring at the face of death – and it was ready to take me in.”
The incident took place on a winter evening in 2017 – but thankfully, her parents found her on time and rushed her to hospital to have her stomach pumped.
Sitting on the hospital bed at the time, she told her parents everything.
That was also the first time they heard about her ordeal in school, thereby marking an end to her five-year stint as a silent victim.
But, it would also be the last time she would have to face the bullies alone. As with Margaret, strict action was taken against the bullies – with two even being suspended from classes.
Thankfully, earlier this year, she graduated from school with flying colours, and is looking forward not back.
Margaret’s fight with bullies may have had a happy ending but others aren’t so lucky, having endured the trauma of bullying during their formative years and adolescence.
While there aren’t any solid statistics backed by the Ministry of Health on how many students and other individuals in Oman undergo bullying, some experts believe that the numbers are on the rise – and they all concur that it’s time to put a stop to it all.
Granted, to put the brakes on bullying, we must first define it. And as per bullying resource website ‘Stop Bullying’, it can be described as unwanted, aggressive behaviour among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.
The behaviour is often repeated or may have the potential to be repeated. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.
A quick Google search will reveal several clinics across Oman working together to help the mental health of children and adults alike.
But as the founder of the Whispers of Serenity Clinic, Sayyida Basma al Said, says: “Help still isn’t reaching all parts of the country and it’s time to change that.
One such campaign that has gained much publicity across Oman is the ‘Not Alone’ by her clinic. Their motto? To educate the residents – both citizens and expats alike – about bullying, mental health, and ways to overcome such unfortunate situations in “energetic, creative, and different ways”.
This has taken her team from Muscat to Salalah.
In an interview with Y, Sayyida Basma explains: “To understand the mental health of school-going children, we need to factor in several notions: can they cope with the syllabus? Are they comfortable with their teachers? And most important of all, the types of bullies that they are exposed to.
“Not every bully in a school is, say, another student,” she adds.
This brings us to the story of Deepali Kumar, an alumnus of an Indian school in Oman; a tag she says she’s ashamed to even speak of. The reason? She was victimised by bullies that included her friends and teachers.
She says: “As a little child, I loved school. I absolutely loved participating and engaging in various activities.
“But, when I realised I wasn’t cut out for academia, I found that my teachers weren’t supportive. They often shamed me for not being the brightest, mostly in the presence of over 40 other kids in class.
“In hindsight, I believe that my peers picked up on this – and they then began teasing and mocking me for being ‘slow’. Many of my friends didn’t want to be my friends anymore too.
“I blame my teachers for that,” she says.
But, things didn’t get any better for Deepali as she entered high school, either.
“In my teenage years, I was incredibly outspoken, and I seldom cared of what anyone thought of me. I called people out on the way they behaved or treated me. So, I believe that’s how bullying in high school began.
“The sad truth is that many parents don’t teach their children the valuable lesson of being kind to one another. Parents teach their children that ‘an eye for an eye’ is the only solution to survival.
“I broke away from this only when I left school for university. I realised that college was where I could be myself and excel,” she then adds.
Today, Deepali may have become a successful Yogic philosophic teacher herself but she strongly supports impressing the youth of today of the strong values of love. She also believes the trauma she experienced changed the course of her life.
She can now talk about her sufferings, but bear in mind that there are others in Oman who bottle up their feelings for fear of being shamed.
In an earlier interview with Y, Dr. Amira al Raaidan, the Director for Health Education and Awareness Programs, and Head of the Mental Health Department in the Ministry of Health, shed light on the effects of bullying on children.
She says: “Bullying can cause a lot of negative mental and, at times, also physical health issues in children. Especially if they don’t receive professional aid.
“These kids can develop an aversion towards their schools and peers, which stems from their adverse experiences. This can in turn lead to feelings of sadness and loneliness, depression, anxiety, and even loss in interest of activities they once enjoyed.
“When this happens, it’s important to seek professional help. Else, this can really alter the mental health of the child as they grow up, and it can persist into adulthood,” she adds.
We narrate Deepali’s story to Dr. Aisha al Barwani, a life-coach who specialises in working with the youth of Oman.
She explains: “There are several aspects we need to talk about when we look at bullying. Today, we see a lot of people beginning to shed light on it, and also take a stand against it. But the greatest question always is this: why do children turn into bullies?
“The answer to that is incredibly complex,” says the doctor. “But, if you were to underline the greatest reason for a kid to begin bullying, it’s to solve their social problems and cover up a distinct lack of problem-solving skills.
According to Aisha, this is a cognitive function that some fail to develop during their formative years.
“So, in order to solve the problem, the child makes use of aggression. This, in turn, leads to the child bullying others until they submit to their demands. In many ways, it’s an easy way out.
“But as Deepali pointed out, children mimic what they see – and in the case of most Asian kids, they learn from their parents. This means that if they’re exposed to spouses who abuse or mistreat each other, they are likely to grow up with similar traits too.
“You’re effectively telling the child that it’s normal to be abusive.
“While that sits on one corner of the chart, another reason kids act out is because of the lack of attention they receive at home or the abuse they’re exposed to by their parents. Every human being has an outlet valve that will blow over steam if you go beyond a certain limit – and such is the case in children too.
“Just last week, I sat down with a child – a smart six-year-old boy – who was brought in by his domestic help for bullying his peers in class. It didn’t take long for me to realise how his parent’s lack of attention (due to their work schedules) resulted in him seeking out attention by emotionally bullying his classmates – thereby forming a clan of students who look up to him.
“In Hollywood terms, he’s the popular kid in class,” Aisha says, before adding that all efforts to bring the child’s parents together were futile.
“But this is becoming a popular phenomenon here in Oman – especially in Government schools. I do see a lot of Omani children being dragged into counselling sessions more so than ever before.”
And she has a point. As per statistics revealed by a study – The Magnitude and Impact of Bullying among School Pupils in Muscat, Oman: A Cross-Sectional Study, published in 2014, a whopping 76.5 per cent of students of all ages from the study group confessed to being bullied at some point in their school life.
Of the 1,299 students that were interviewed, 940 claimed that they were bullied, of which 422 (constituting 76.1 per cent) were men and 518 (constituting 76.7 per cent) were women. These victims were thought to have been bullied on the basis of their physical appearance, academic performance (like in the case of Deepali), followed by the victim’s style of speech.
These are worrying stats too, as developed countries are now boasting far lower rates of bullying in schools. As per the data revealed by ‘Stop Bullying’, 28 per cent of students from grades 6 – 12 experienced bullying, while the numbers dropped to 20 per cent in the grades 9 – 12.
This was one of the aims of the Whispers of Serenity during their ‘Not Alone’ campaigns that were held earlier this year.
Sayyida Basma says: “We chose a few schools around Muscat, and we visited and educated them about bullying and mental health. And we were quite happy to see that a lot of these schools welcomed us.
From that, we did real stories of bullying – and a short clip was created with survivors talking about their experiences and how they overcame it.
For 2018, the ‘Not Alone’ awareness campaign will also focus on bullying as its main theme. As part of the events, Sayyida Basma and her team are visiting private and public schools in Muscat Governorate to talk to students and teachers about bullying; how it happens, its signs and symptoms, and how one can seek help.
“We can help people by creating awareness campaigns, and to be honest, that’s what we were lacking here. But even with that, a lot of youth don’t reach out because it’s a very secret part of your body and soul that you don’t want anybody to touch.
“There’s always the shame of weakness. But that’s the mindset we need to change. Talking about being bullied isn’t particularly showing your weakness, but rather that of the bully,” she adds.
Anyone in need of professional help today can reach out to the team at the Whispers of Serenity, or other clinics across the Sultanate.
That said, steps also need to be taken from the grass root levels – in homes and, more so, at schools – to avert bullying.
In an interview with Y, a teacher from an Indian school who wishes to remain anonymous, says: “Schools today profess loyalty to their students – but really, it’s slowly becoming all about the money.
“Yes, they talk about bringing in laws in classes that will clamp down on bullies, and more counsellors to help victims, but in the last two decades of my teaching here, I haven’t seen much change.
“I see a lot of students being taunted, called names, physically hurt, and so on, daily – and I make it a point to take action against them.
“But these kids are only in our sight for a few hours every day. After that, they’re out in the world.
“And if someone is considered vulnerable in school – which is believed to be a safe space – then how can they feel comfortable in the outside world,” he asks.
“Schools are hardwired to be houses that cram information into the heads. There’s no real-world application out there anymore, so these children will suffer as time goes on.
“This means the bullying will continue to their work and family life, and even their social circles.
“Even teachers are involved in this now. If a student underperforms, they’ll publicly shame them. This won’t help the child grow; it’s killing their desire to learn and live.
In a bid to help such students, most schools across the country now have counsellors to deal with bullied students. But the teacher thinks that a rocky road still lies ahead.
He says that he rarely sees children visiting them in the fear of being judged. Moreover, he also reports that teachers deny children from attending counselling sessions during school hours.
“In India there’s a saying that goes: ‘Matha, Pitha, Guru, Deva’, which means, a child should give reverence in the order of ‘Mother, Father, Teacher, and God’.
“But how can a child who’s bullied by everyone, starting from their friends to teachers come out of such deep psychological scars to live life normally (?) Take a long and hard think about it.”
• Some of the names in this article have been changed.