Last Sunday, the body of 20 year old Vangelis Yiakoumakis was discovered weeks after he disappeared. The verdict was suicide, a desperately sad end to a promising young life. Immediately after he vanished, it emerged that he had been the victim of severe bullying at the dairy college he attended in picturesque Ioannina, Northwest Greece.
These events sparked much debate about bullying in the country, which charitable organisations such as Smile of a Child have reported to be reaching epidemic proportions. The situation has got worse since the economic crisis deepened, and yet despite deaths like this, the fact remains that Greece is by and large in denial about the scale and seriousness of bullying.
When I first moved to Greece, this was one of my first questions. Did bullying exist in Greek schools? And if so, how bad was it? The answer I got was an emphatic no. The few people who would acknowledge the issue gave a shrug and said things like “Kids will be kids, they’ll always find something to pick on.”
The problem with Greece is that parents cannot imagine that their little darlings might be the source of someone else’s misery. My husband was utterly adamant that there was no such thing as bullying in Greek schools, such as the type which exists in the UK and USA. As more and more cases such as this latest one have come to light, he has quietly had to admit that something has gone wrong. There might not have been bullying in his school days. But there certainly is now.
Here’s what has bothered me about the issue. Time and time again, the debate has boiled down to how can we get our children to talk? I’ve watched TV exchanges where well-meaning specialists have picked over which is the best way to get young people to talk about being bullied. There is little thought about how to stop bullies from bullying. It’s all centred on making the victim responsible for getting out of the situation themselves without wondering whether it’s the adults that need to be better listeners and pay closer attention to the mental welfare of the children in their lives.
There is a lot of talk about how much Vangelis was bullied, or how badly. How badly was it? Was it badly enough to take your own life? Friends who were with him on the day noticed nothing out of the ordinary. It can’t have been that bad can it, if no one close to him realised he was going to kill himself? This is what the whole thing comes down to, once again trying to quantify abuse and mental health.
People have been trying to measure just how bad it has to get for someone to take their life, ignoring completely the bigger issue of what is going on with our young people, their lives, the lack of support for mental health not just in Greece but in so many countries. When you are at the edge peering into the abyss, which I am not ashamed to admit is a place I’ve found myself, it does not take much more to push you over it.
Let me tell you my take on the problem from someone who was bullied.
I’ve often joked that you could not pay me enough money to go through high school again. But I’m not really joking. From the age of 14 when I entered high school in the UK, through to 16 when all my tormentors opted not to continue on to sixth form, I was bullied.
The interesting thing is that I didn’t really consider myself a victim of bullying. I still got up each day, got ready and happily went to school with no sense of dread. Here’s why: when people, especially young people think of bullying, they think of bruises, cut lips, punches to the stomach, being shoved and pushed, physically intimidated. They don’t think of the constant, tiny daily comments, the belittling, the mental anguish they’re going through, the deconstruction bit by bit of their self esteem, the erosion of their ability to like their own selves.
I didn’t think I was being bullied because I had nothing to show for it. My bullies never laid a finger on me. They called me names, shouted out cruel things to me as they passed me in the corridor and never missed a chance to make fun of my appearance. They hid my glasses or my school bag when I was changing for gym class. My frizzy hair, bookishness, glasses and invisibility to the opposite sex made me an easy target.
I didn’t tell anyone in a position of authority except for once telling a teacher after class when two of the girls had snipped some of my hair off. And she did absolutely nothing. Not one thing. This made me feel like perhaps it was me who was being oversensitive. I didn’t tell anyone again. I reasoned that on the scale of things, I probably wasn’t really being bullied.
I wish someone had taken me to a side then and said “You see those girls who are making your life miserable? A few years from now you’ll be far away from here. You’ll have a life, you’ll be meeting wonderful people and doing amazing things. And they’ll still be here, stuck in this little town.” No one did though. Years after my self esteem had been whittled away to nothing I had to build it back up piece by piece, splinter by splinter, to start believing again that I was good, likeable and worthy.
Given the advent of social media and mobile phones, I do not even want to imagine what my teenage years would have been like if I had to relive them now. At least I could go home and switch off. Teenagers today can’t. The abuse they face is constant and never ending.
Being bullied doesn’t mean coming home with messed up clothes and bruises every day. If you’re a young person reading this, I just want you to know: if someone is making you feel less worthy, you are being bullied. If someone is making fun of your appearance, your clothes, your origins or your intellect, you are being bullied. Don’t wait for them to start using their fists on you. Tell an authority figure, and keep on telling until someone listens to you.
Most of all, remember that you are worthy and you are precious.