Expert to speak on bullying and peer abuse

Author and consultant on bullying and peer abuse Elizabeth Bennett knows from personal experience what she is talking about.

From age 3, and off and on until she was 31, the 44-year-old suffered abuse, she said in her southern twang in a phone interview from her home in South Carolina.

“I contribute a lot of it too to our society. We’ve just gotten so mean and so nasty too. It was 27 years and I had to take healing into my own hands, which I did,” she said. “It became more subtle as I got older. When you’re younger it’s pretty much out there, but when you get older it becomes more of a manipulation type thing, more of an exclusion type thing, especially in girls. I just always felt like the odd person out. … It overwhelmed me. It took me several years to heal and I had to do it on my own. There’s nothing in the books right now to heal this.”

The Altoona Regional Health System and other area organizations such as the Home Nursing Agency, the Blair County MH/ID/EI program, Penn State Altoona Health & Wellness Center and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Blair County are sponsoring a program to help bring about some of that much needed healing.

Bennett, who fought to have the Safe School Climate Act passed in South Carolina in 2006 and is a Nationally Certified Trainer through the evidence-based Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, is the featured speaker at the May is Mental Health Month event taking place Wednesday at the Ramada, Altoona. The featured topic is, “Bullying and Peer Abuse: Start the Healing.”

The word bullying minimizes the problem, Bennett said.

“This is a social abuse. I just feel like if we want people to take it seriously we’ve got to be serious. And I know people are starting to understand it better now, and starting to take it more seriously, but you know the term bullying is just minimizing it,” she said.

“I say look at it this way, pretend like the past 10 or 12 years have not existed with bullying and someone came up to you back at the turn of the millennium and asked you what bullying was, you’d probably say ‘school yard stuff’ or ‘Johnny took Suzy’s milk money.’ That does not even begin to touch it. I have to keep it real and I call it peer abuse. That’s my biggest battle in all of this, getting people to understand that,” she said.

Maria Brandt, The Arc of Blair County executive director and a May Is Mental Health Month committee member, said parents have told the The Arc, which works with people with developmental disabilities and their families, about bullying and that their children are suffering at school.

The Arc has advocated for children who were disciplined for having stood up to their bullies, she said.

“So after several of these situations happened, I thought this is something we need to start educating everyone about,” Brandt said. “And we did not want to just make it for families. This is for mental health professionals. It is for educators. Because we all want them to hear the message.

“Sometimes inadvertently adults are an accessory to bullying. They don’t do enough to stop it. Or they don’t realize how hurtful the words can be. So we want to educate everybody, including families and children themselves,” she said.

Bennett will address several points, including “adults who have been bullied and are still carrying the scars,” Brandt said.

Mark Frederick, committee chairman, said the annual event attempts to deliver educational topics and strives to de-stigmatize mental health.

“This year we chose bullying because it’s such a rudimentary core issue of what happens not just in schools as people automatically think, but it does occur everywhere, it does occur even to some degree even in adult lives,” he said.

Bennett has seen peer abuse in many places, including church, work and among neighbors, she said.

“It’s everywhere. Some of these adults were childhood abusers, childhood bullies and they just didn’t outgrow of it. Some did outgrow of it, but some didn’t and they brought this along with them into adulthood,” she said.

Adults should know better, she said.

“We really, really should. An adult, just don’t participate in it. Stay out of the politics. Stay out of the crap. Don’t put yourself in there. I mean it’s just real simple. And again as adults, I’ll just say it, it’s pretty pathetic. We should know better, but sometimes we get caught in these cat-and-mouse tricks for one reason or another,” she said. “Don’t keep quiet about it and don’t enable it. … just subtly take it to a higher office in the workplace or an adult at school.”

Survivors of peer abuse can suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety and depression, though some survivors went through it without very many problems, she said.

Bullying is continuing to escalate nationally and locally, Frederick said in a press release.

“Whether your child is a victim, a bully, or witnesses it happening to a classmate, all are impacted. Bullying is a huge distraction from learning and that is the reason our children are in school,” he said. “Bullying today occurs in many more settings and has far-reaching consequences. Teens have committed suicide after bullying-related videos of them were placed on the internet. It is no longer simply a bully taking the victim’s lunch money. Today, bullying is taking lives.”

Education on the subject is lacking and more work needs to be done, Bennett said.

She suggests advocates receive training on the subject.

“This is the most important thing to remember: This is not a kid problem, this is an adult problem. Because kids do not have the sophistication to sit down and problem solve. It’s not going to happen. Their brains are not developed. They’re still learning right from wrong, this and that. Adults must intervene.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.