In the two weeks since 11-year-old Michael Morones attempted to take his own life by hanging, potentially leaving him severely brain damaged, his parents are trying to sort out what happened and where to go from here.
Suicidal ideation is a complicated thing. We do know that Michael was bullied for liking My Little Pony, that he was taunted, called gay, and made to feel ashamed for watching a TV show that his peers felt was only appropriate for girls. You can read the full backstory in my first piece here, which triggered widespread news reporting on Michael.
With intense news coverage around suicide and bullying, it is easy for the quick-to-publish mainstream media to sensationalize the stories and lose focus on the core issues. There is also a very real copycat effect, and the last thing we want is for more kids to attempt suicide, when the whole point of sharing Michael's story is to raise awareness and provide assistance to his grieving family.
So, yes, Michael was bullied for being a "Brony" (a male fan of My Little Pony), and that is a critical factor in his emotional state. But in my extensive research on bullying, I have learned that bullying alone does not usually lead to suicidal ideation. When bullying is combined with psychological conditions in a child such as depression and anxiety, then we see the increased risk of suicidal ideation. Even then, most kids who are bullied do not attempt suicide. Be sure to let your kids know this, because we don't want them to think that suicide is a common option if you are being bullied. A better option is to be persistent about asking for help, until it does indeed get better. Because it will.
Of course, there is a chicken and an egg component to the combination of bullying and psychological distress. Does a child's predisposition for depression and anxiety exist prior to the bullying and only become exacerbated by the bullying? Or does the bullying cause the depression and anxiety? It is hard to sort out causality. What we do know is that bullying is clearly associated with psychological distress, and the two together are associated with higher risk for suicidal ideation, so both bullying and depression must be taken very seriously, alone or together.
As far as Michael Morones goes, other than expressing sadness about the bullying taking place at school, he was not outwardly exhibiting any warning signs of depression. Prior to that terrible night, he continued to bounce around, play violin, watch My Little Pony, and listen to his favorite music by Pentatonix and Lindsey Stirling.
In the absence of known factors other than bullying that might have been upsetting Michael, there is now heavy pressure being exerted on the Wake County Public Schools to make a public response to Michael's case. It has come to light that in March 2000, Christopher Joyner, a student at Michael's same middle school, hanged himself in the school gym, apparently because he'd been bullied. Not enough has changed in the 14 years separating Joyner's time at Zebulon Middle School from Morones' time there.
In 2009, state lawmakers passed a law requiring school districts to have policies against bullying, and Wake County's policy is clear. Students should report it. Teachers and staff must report it.
As for whether any of that happened, the school district isn't saying, nor are they answering any questions about what led up to Michael trying to take his own life, or what's been done since.
If no reports of bullying were ever made to the school, it is difficult to hold the school responsible for the bullying. But if the kids and teachers had knowledge that bullying was occurring and nobody spoke up, that points to a problem with the culture of the school.
Just because there may not be written reports doesn't mean it wasn't happening, nor should the school pretend that nothing happened and leave current students to flounder without social workers on hand to talk with them.
The tragedy here and the lack of ensuing accountability underline the importance of making a report to the school if your child is being bullied, so that you have a paper trail of evidence. Additionally, we must continue to educate our young people on the fact that gender stereotypes are harmful, and that it is okay for boys and girls to play with all toys, not just the ones marketed to their gender.
Michael's stepfather told me:
In regards to Wake County public schools, my feelings are mixed. While I understand they have policies and procedures they have to follow, I do not understand why grief counseling and additional counselors have not been brought in. Regardless of what the school believes about the bullying, the reality is that a student still tried to take his own life. That is going to make people ask questions, and it's going to confuse and scare the other children in his school. The school should provide those students an outlet to deal with their grief and confusion and the overwhelming sense of fear that they must have right now. And this must be in the context of Michael's message of forgiveness.
Honoring Michael's spirit, his family is more interested in healing than in blame. They are not calling for punishment of the aggressors; rather, they are calling for education, support, and the teaching of empathy. Since research has shown that punitive responses to bullying don't work anyway, Michael's family is already on the right track. It is about restoration and restitution. The news reports should focus not on the horrible details of Michael's suicide attempt but on the way forward to a place of resolution, both for Michael and for his local community.
What does the future hold for young Michael? It may be months or even years until the extent of his ability to heal is revealed. Yesterday he underwent a tracheotomy and a procedure to place a feeding tube. He will be heavily sedated for the next week, and the doctors will not be able to tell how his body reacts to being fed via the feeding tube for at least two days.
He has yet to regain a coherent state. The silence of his school has been overpowered by the loud support of people around the world. The geek world, the My Little Pony fans, and hundreds of thousands of others are sending love, toy ponies, memes, and messages to the little boy who was taunted for liking a cartoon pony.
Upon reading my first piece about Michael, both Pentatonix and Lindsey Stirling have reached out to help their truest fan during his darkest time of need. They have made private arrangements for Michael to hear their music, in the hopes that somewhere, deep in his consciousness, the beauty will stir in his soul a desire to come back and turn his face toward the light of a new day.
Michael's parents offer the following statement:
The support from everyone continues to flood in. It is both overwhelming and awe inspiring to witness what people have been able to do, starting from the mobilization of what some would consider to be a very small subculture of society. Whether you are a Brony, a member of the 501st, a comic book fan, a movie fan, a pirate fan or any other genre, you are without a doubt the most important part of Team Mighty Michael.
And my young, Star Wars-loving daughter says, "Michael, may the Pony be with you."
May Michael recover and continue to bring joy to his family.
Money can still be donated at any State Employees Credit Union under the Michael Morones Recovery Fund. Checks can also be mailed to The Michael Morones Recovery Fund, c/o Team Trivia Inc., 1380 Woodvine Way, Alpharetta, GA 30005, or through PayPal at email@example.com.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Carrie Goldman is the award-winning author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. Follow Carrie Goldman on Facebook and Twitter.