Chicago Tribune - - Jun 30, 2009
The bullying seemed inescapable.
His family and friends say it followed Iain Steele from junior high to high school -- from hallways, where one tormentor shoved him into lockers, to cyberspace, where another posted a video on Facebook making fun of his taste for heavy metal music.
"At one point, [a bully] had told [Iain] he wished he would kill himself," said Matt Sikora, Iain's close friend.
Iain's parents know their son had other problems, but they believe the harassment contributed to a deepening depression that hospitalized the 15-year-old twice this year. On June 3, while his classmates were taking final exams, he went to the basement of his Western Springs home and hanged himself with a belt.
His death stunned the quiet suburb west of Chicago and unleashed an outpouring of support for his parents, William and Liz, who say greater attention should be paid to bullying and its connection to mental health.
"No kid should be afraid for himself to go to school," his father said. "It should be a safe environment where they can intellectually thrive. And he was, literally, just frightened to go to school, fearing what he would have to deal with on that day. And it was day after day."
A school spokeswoman said she did not believe Iain was bullied. Police are investigating the allegations.
Nearly 30 percent of American children are bullied or are bullies themselves, according to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. Bullying can be physical, verbal or psychological and is repetitive, intentional and creates a perceived imbalance of power, said Dr. Joseph Wright, senior vice president at Children's National Medical Center in Washington.
This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics will for the first time include a section on bullying in its official policy statement on the pediatrician's role in preventing youth violence.
Wright, a lead author of the statement, said the decision to address the issue was due to a growing body of research over the last decade linking bullying to youth violence, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Last year, the Yale School of Medicine analyzed the link between childhood bullying and suicide in 37 studies from 13 countries, finding that both bullies and their victims were at high risk of contemplating suicide.
In March, the parents of a 17-year-old Ohio boy who committed suicide sued his school alleging their son was bullied. Instead of seeking compensation, they are asking the school to put in place an anti-bullying program and to recognize their son's death as a "bullicide."
'An easy target'
Iain Steele enjoyed riding his skateboard, his father said, but after hip surgery in 8th grade limited his mobility, he picked up the guitar and impressed an instructor with his musical talent.
He was revered by younger kids in the neighborhood, often fixing their skateboards, settling their disputes and including them in games. "He was a very gentle, kind kid, compassionate to a fault," his father said.
But Iain's embrace of heavy metal set him apart from classmates. He let his hair grow to shoulder-length and wore mostly black clothing, including jeans with chains and T-shirts of heavy metal bands with dark, sometimes morbid lyrics.
For this, his classmates at McClure Junior High School in Western Springs often called him "emo" -- a slang term for angst-ridden followers of a style of punk music, said Sikora, 15. The bullying could also be physical, Iain's friends and parents said. In 8th grade at McClure, one bully pushed Iain into a locker while he was on crutches and accused him of faking an injury to get out of gym class. But Iain rarely shied away from his tormentors, his father said, and in this case, Iain punched the bully in the jaw.
"He was mainly bullied," Sikora said, "only because he was different, or hurt or stupid things like that. He never bothered anybody. ... It was all just because he was different and an easy target."...
Iain's parents and friends say they do not know of any incidents that might have triggered what happened June 3, when his father found him in the basement. His death was ruled a suicide by hanging, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office. He did not leave a note.
Looking back, Iain's parents wonder what factors besides bullying may have contributed to their son's depression.
Iain's favorite heavy metal bands, such as Lamb of God, Children of Bodom and Bullet for My Valentine, often have lyrics with dark messages. One Bullet for My Valentine song is about being bullied, and another song contains the refrain: "The only way out is to die."
Also, Iain was deeply hurt this spring after a brief relationship with a girl he met in his outpatient program. The two exchanged text messages, but her parents and therapists advised against them dating and about two months ago barred her from having communication with him.
Still, Iain's parents remain convinced bullying played a significant role in their son's depression. As Iain's story spread through the community, many people approached Liz Steele to describe their own experiences with bullying, depression or suicide, she said.
"A lot of people don't want to talk about mental health or bullying because it's a difficult thing to talk about, but we need to talk about it," she said. "It shouldn't be a stigma."