Bullying is a crime, not just a problem
Michael Corry believes that bullying should be regarded as a work-related injury and that bullies should face criminal prosecution
Bully: a person who hurts, persecutes, or intimidates weaker people (Collins English Dictionary); a person who uses strength or power to coerce or intimidate weaker persons (Oxford).
To harass: to trouble, torment, or confuse by persistent continual attacks, questions, etc. (Collins); to trouble by repeated attacks, to subject to constant molesting or persecution (Oxford).
To intimidate: to make timid or frightened, to scare; to discourage, restrain, or silence illegally or unscrupulously, as by threats or blackmail (Collins); to terrify, overawe, cow; to deter from some action by threats or violence (Oxford).
Bullying is an act of violence and abuse. It's a vicious assault on the mind, body and spirit. The extent of its impact is rarely appreciated. As a criminal act, it needs to be addressed more seriously by the courts. In my opinion, bullying is akin to the trauma of sexual abuse, rape, and torture. It crushes the will, breaks the heart and sends the mind into turmoil. In its wake it brings shame, guilt, self-loathing, isolation and seething anger. It can destroy relationships and wreck family life. It opens a Pandora's box of psychological phenomena: anxiety, poor concentration, forgetfulness, obsessional ruminations, flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, panic attacks, social withdrawal, loss of libido, mistrust, de-motivation, depression, suicidal thoughts, loss of hope and even suicide itself.
The body takes a hammering — fatigue, weight loss, hypertension, chest pain, asthma, stomach ulceration, irritable bowel, nausea, diarrhoea, period problems, ligament and joint pains, psoriasis, eczema, etc. The inevitable suppression of the immune system opens the way to a multiplicity of infections and the possibility of cancer cells taking root.
The longer the individual is exposed to the onslaught, the greater the damage, and greater still if the bully has enlisted the support of others to work as a team. Now we have a blood-hungry pack of wolves. This phenomenon is known as ‘mobbing'. Because of its terrifying effectiveness, everyone not directly involved runs for cover lest they also come in for attack. Hence the victim's isolation, and the terrible feelings of rejection and abandonment.
The emotion of depression has evolved over aeons of time, stretching back to our ancient brain. We share this powerful emotional response with social animals who are bonded through relationship and attachment. We know that abandonment by their group can cause death. Lacking the required survival skills for life outside the group, they experience overwhelming helplessness, and such animals become depressed, and surrender the will to live.
Similarly in humans, the moment exclusion and abandonment is experienced, old evolutionary pathways are opened. Now perceiving themselves to be lacking in control, they experience powerlessness, hopelessness, inner emptiness, nothing to live for, and may feel they are of such low status as to be of no use to anyone.
In my practice I have sat in front of weeping, crushed, lifeless individuals who could no longer meet the unbearable cost of living and so welcomed oblivion. They appeared to be running the chemistry of death. Since the life they knew had ended, their only viable option appeared, to them, to be absolute disengagement.
Some sit around, virtually waiting for death while others take a more proactive decision. The link between bullying and suicide is now well established.
Estimates show that one in every seventh suicide is related to bullying at work.
While I have worked with many bullied individuals from different walks of life, the worst affected have been those from the Garda Siochana, the Army, and the teaching profession. These hierarchical, closed structures lend themselves to serial abuse of power, mobbing and exclusion. An individual who, for whatever reason, becomes a target, and who may previously have got along famously with his colleagues both professionally and socially, is now given the cold shoulder by them, lest they by association attract the bully's attention. For years they may have regarded these colleagues as ‘family,' and now — overnight — they are treated as an untouchable.
In these organisations especially, bullying will only stop when it is seen as an injury in the workplace and the perpetrators are treated as criminals.
There are few survivors of bullying. If your identity as you knew it has been taken away, it's extremely difficult to build a new one, especially if it means relocation within the same organisation. Many feel so betrayed and mistrustful that the will to participate again evaporates. On their return from sick leave they are confronted by too many reminders. To their horror, they may find that the bully is still in place or has even been promoted, so the danger continues. Why would anyone traumatised risk re-exposure in the same toxic culture?
Many are so post-traumatically stressed that total avoidance of anything which even vaguely represents the trauma site becomes their policy. They ignore letters and phone-calls from work, avoid socialising in pubs used by their work colleagues, and even avoid driving past the workplace. Who wants to experience another panic attack, another flashback, where mentally, emotional and physically you find yourself re-experiencing, as if for the first time, the worst aspects of the bullying trauma? And then, for weeks on end, meet it in your dreams? This is the territory where day-mares and nightmares meet.
Those who try to find alternative employment meet a brick wall. Many report breaking down at interviews, if they are lucky to get one, as they struggle to explain why they left their previous employment. Lacking good references doesn't help.
The more one comes to understand the catastrophic effects of bullying on the victim and their families, and the odds against ever getting restorative justice, the more it becomes clear how their feelings of grief, anger, bitterness, desolation, hypersensitivity, dread, and life-threatening depression take on their own legitimacy. So deep are the wounds that professional interventions are difficult, since so many layers are involved.
The therapist has to take a credulous attitude and take each symptom at face value. Any air of ‘I know best' or ‘I'm the expert' will instantly be interpreted as having a flavour similar to that of the bully. Many victims feel re-traumatised when it's inferred that their problems are the result of twisted, distorted thinking, which can be straightened out with a programme of ‘cognitive behavioural therapy'.
Statements from a therapist such as ‘Your symptoms are not based on an accurate perception of reality, because you are over-personalising, over-generalising, mislabelling, jumping to conclusions, disqualifying the positive, etc, etc.' are unhelpful, damning, judgmental and dangerous, as they are designed to shift blame, making the victim feel counterfeit and at fault for being the way they are.
The now fashionable practice of combining antidepressant medication with cognitive behavioural therapy, with a view to keeping these highly distressed individuals at work and firmly in the line of fire of the bully, beggars belief and is another layer of trauma. Too often, members of caring professions, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, and occupational health physicians, unwittingly end up taking referrals from dysfunctional organisations which will not remove their bullies from the ranks. Those same professionals would immediately report the actions of a sexual abuser. So what's the difference?
Victims also, paradoxically, report that they find themselves traumatised by the attitude of members of the legal profession from whom they seek support. They feel they have not been listened to, and are nothing more than a number and a meal ticket. I have come across individuals who were forced into re-mortgaging their homes to meet mounting legal fees. Worst still, when push comes to shove, in an atmosphere of time urgency, high drama, half-truths and wheeling and dealing, they find themselves rushed into making unsatisfactory settlements.
It is my opinion that victims of bullying have a certain vulnerability which can attract additional trauma, intimidation and exploitation. The same is true of the sexually abused. There is a black hole in consciousness with respect to the early identification and unique needs of the bullied, both psychologically and legally.