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Behind the Headlines: Bullied For Being Blind

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Behind the Headlines: The social causes in current events.
In a unique take on daily news hits, Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about. You'll never read the news in the same way again.

The headline that got us thinking: Long-term effects of bullying: Pain lasts into adulthood.

As Molly Burke went blind, her world shrunk. Light darkened and colours faded, and at her most vulnerable, her friends fell away. Teachers assigned helpers to walk her to class; some were embarrassed by her white cane. And girls who'd been her best friends, "my sisters", she told us recently, were now tasked with her care. Perhaps they resented her, perhaps they couldn't cope with their own emotions, Burke speculates. Regardless, the line between friend and tormentor, between ally and enemy, began to blur.

Burke was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age four and by age 14 was struggling with severe vision loss. The rare, degenerative retinal disease was killing off the light-sensing cells in her eyes. She began bumping into objects she could once see clearly. By the end of Gr. 8, she fell down the stairs and broke her ankle.

Her best friends were supposed to walk her to her lunch period, but instead eight girls led her into a wooded area behind the school, snatched her crutches and smashed them against a tree. They laughed, taunted her, then left her in the woods, disoriented and scared.

While coping with vision loss, Burke struggled with depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. The effects of that experience linger five years later, she told us. She is resilient. But time doesn't heal all wounds.

When we spoke with Burke, she was already contemplating the conclusions of a study published last week about the impact of bullying -- on the tormented and the tormentors. According to research published in JAMA Psychiatry online, the effects of childhood bullying might last well into adulthood. Researchers led by a professor at Duke University surveyed 1420 kids in North Carolina about their experiences bullying and being bullied between the ages of nine and 16, and followed up during young adulthood.

Bully victims suffered direct and long-lasting effects, with an increased risk of depression, anxiety and agoraphobia disorders as adults. Bullies, meanwhile, were more likely to suffer antisocial personality disorder. But the most severe long-term effects appeared in the group that self-identified as both bullies and victims -- an increased risk of mental illness, including recurrent suicidal thoughts. Some kids play both roles, and suffer greatly for it.

Research is validating Burke's experiences in real-time.

The line between bully and victim is ambiguous. Often, kids are typecast into separate roles when similar underlying issues might be manifesting in different ways, through aggression or surrender. In some cases, the bullies are suffering more than those being bullied, Burke told us. On top of choosing the wrong outlet for their anger, "now in the future they're left with the guilt of what they've done."

Burke has since shared her story with thousands of young people as a Me to We speaker. She's a voice against bullying at a time when high-profile teen suicides and cyberspace have turned the playground taunts once deemed a rite of passage into a hot button issue and, potentially, a criminal act. Increased public awareness brought a litany of responses -- anti-bullying legislation, empathy classes, and more research into the psychological effects of victimhood. And more questions about the minds of bullies.

We recently asked Burke, our friend and colleague, about the potential long-term effects of her childhood trauma and how she feels about the bullies who'd once been her friends.

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What do you imagine your bullies were thinking that day in the woods?

For two years, they were my best friends. And I think that was just... it... for them. That was in May, and the entire school year leading up to that, they were trying to be as supportive as possible. It was not an easy situation. I wasn't prepared to lose my vision and for what that would do to me emotionally -- and neither were my 13 and 14-year-old friends.

They just couldn't do it anymore. And so they tried to let go of me in the only way they could.

Looking back, I forgive them. It was a situation that none of us should have to deal with. I can see the other side. I can try to put myself in their shoes and see where they were coming from. They went about it in the wrong way. But that was what their 13- and 14-year-old minds told them to do. I don't think they were trying to me malicious or mean or hurtful.

Have you spoken to them since? Do they know that you speak about that day to thousands of other kids?

Yes. I've spoken to some of them, not all of them. I've spoken to my two absolute best friends, the girls I was the closest with -- they were my sisters. They haven't apologized in so many words, but I know in my heart I've forgiven them, and I think in theirs, they've apologized.

It's awkward small talk where they know what they've done to me and how it's hurt me. But I've realized that they've made mistakes and I made mistakes that year too. I think we all just have to accept it as pieces of who we are.

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What do you think about this new research?

I was not surprised at all. Five years later it is affecting new relationships and how I form bonds with people and trust issues.

I'm back seeing a psychologist, not because I'm currently struggling with mental illness, but as a preventative measure. I can see that if I wasn't getting help, it would come back and start affecting me again in the form of mental illness.

When I speak to kids, I am speaking to the kids who are being bullied, but I'm also speaking to the bullies.

What do you want to say to bullies?

It's really hard, as victims, to stand up and say something. I want bullies to know how it feels and I want them to know that it's not too late--to stop, to get yourself help, to apologize. You're never too far gone and you can turn yourself around. Don't underestimate yourself.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com

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