I was the new girl when I started seventh grade, my family having moved over the summer. I quickly became close friends with Dawn and Michelle. We all sat together at lunch, had weekend sleepovers and talked incessantly on the phone. One spring day, Dawn and Michelle suddenly stopped talking to me. There had been a minor argument over a boy, and now when I entered the cafeteria and tried to sit with them, they picked up their trays and changed tables. When I passed them in the hall, they ignored me then burst into giggles as I passed. Being new to the school, I did not have a large circle of friends. I sat alone at lunch and my evenings and weekends were quiet and lonely. I was miserable. I dreaded going to school and entered the building with a pit in my stomach.
Excluding someone from a group to which they had once belonged has a name: ostracism. Ostracism is a form of bullying but, unlike the bullying we associate with verbal or physical taunts, ostracism is a non-behavior so it is harder to address in school settings. Some call ostracism the social death penalty.
Purdue University psychologist Kipling Williams is one of the nation’s leading researchers on ostracism. Williams has found that children who are ostracized can feel depressed and worthless. Often, these youth either resign themselves to being lonely or become desperate for attention.
In the worst cases, ostracized youth can become suicidal or homicidal, as was the case with the recent Santa Barbara, California, shootings.
Williams has also discovered that ostracism triggers the same area of the brain that is active when we feel physical pain. The pain of ostracism is real and can be felt years later. When research subjects are asked to remember ostracism incidents from years ago, they describe them as a punch to the gut and often say they have a headache or feel sick. I can relate; it has been more than 30 years since I was in seventh grade, and those memories still cause my stomach to hurt. I remember clearly the devastation of being purposely excluded by my friends.
A new documentary movie, Reject, explores the profound effect that social rejection has on human life. The movie explores the new research around ostracism and creative models to teach acceptance and inclusion at an early age. I recently had a conversation with Reject director Ruth Thomas-Suh. She was inspired to develop this movie by her father’s work as a psychologist in the prison system. My father would talk about how much physical pain these prisoners were in because of the social rejection they had faced during their lives, she said. This pain manifested itself as violence.
At the McMillen Center for Health Education, we provide bullying education to thousands of youth every year. In Indiana, it’s the law; schools are required to train staff and educate students on how to identify and prevent bullying. The law defines bullying as overt, unwanted, repeated acts or gestures. Like most bullying laws, rejecting youth from a social group is not addressed, although the effect is just as devastating as other forms of bullying.
Thomas-Suh states, It’s time we have a deeper national conversation on the root causes of what causes a child to become a bully. We need to be talking about how being rejected and excluded causes violence, both against others and in the form of suicide, and how it relates to social health.