To gain an insight into bullying, its effects and what can be done to tackle it, Marcus Papadopoulos speaks to Mark Feehily, one of the lead singers of the Irish pop group Westlife and an ambassador of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
When did you start becoming bullied at secondary school?
From a very early period onwards after starting. I was quite a soft-spoken, shy boy and did not have the necessary social skills to allow me to blend in with new pupils and a new setting. That made me an easy target for bullies, who, incidentally, while coming across as strong-minded people tend to be the opposite. My bullies knew that I would not stand up to them.
How did the bullying develop?
The name calling, on account of my shyness and a touch of effeminate behaviour, was near enough every other day. However, owing to how I was a little chubby then, this provided the bullies with something else to target me for. I remember one incident, not too long after I started in the first year, when a boy pulled my hair because he felt ‘disgusted’ just by looking at me. I suspect, looking back at that, it was because I was slightly effeminate. However, the bullying started to become physical following a party I attended in which I kissed a girl. Because of that, the bullying intensified over a period of about six months in which I was beaten up quite badly on numerous occasions, being punched in the face and then kicked repeatedly all over my body while I was on the ground, and spat on, too. One of my mottos in life is that you get the behaviour you tolerate. Because I never fought back against my bullies, the bullying simply became a fact of daily life for me. I would just go into the toilets, for example, and cry.
Did you ever inform one of your teachers about what was happening to you?
I chose not to because I didn’t believe they would be sufficiently interested. I think that some of the teachers in my school, by no means all, shut themselves up from what was happening outside of their lessons.
How did the bullying affect you from a psychological perspective?
It’s interesting that you ask this because currently I and other Irish celebrities, such as Colin Farrell and Jedward, are campaigning, in our roles as ambassadors for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, to highlight the mental scars which stem from bullying. We have had photographs taken of ourselves with black eyes and bleeding lips with the message that the physical scars are a representation of the mental scars. It cannot be over emphasised just how important it is for teachers to be aware that children can suffer in silence from bullying with no physical signs. The emotional scarring from bullying is horrific and long-term. I am 31 years old, with my bullying having begun about 20 years ago, and I can still become quite anxious when I am out at night-the fear being that someone will approach me and beat me up. The effects of bullying just eat away at you over time. I have heard stories of men in their forties who cry themselves to sleep at night because of the bullying they experienced in their school years.
As an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, what are you hoping to achieve?
I am coming to this campaign as someone who was a victim of bullying. I am an artistic person and this is why I had photographs taken of myself looking beaten up; it’s about having maximum impact on people. Ironically, while the bruises on my face in those photographs aren’t real, there were many occasions when I left school at the end of a day with bruises and cuts to my face.
Are there any steps you would like to see schools take to try and ensure the safety of its pupils?
My view is that children should not be left unmonitored when they are walking to and from lessons as this is when a lot of bullying occurs–this certainly was the case for me. So I would like to see the possibility of having adult monitors employed by schools to be walking along the corridors in between lessons.
Do you have a message for bullies today?
This is not an easy question to answer because what bullies are doing is down to their own issues in life. A lot of the time bullies are not simply violent, crazy people but rather people who are experiencing their own problems in life–for example, they might be scared about something. And unfortunately the way human beings sometimes respond to fear is by taking their frustration directly out on another person, whether it is verbal and/or physical. I would just say to a bully to think about the devastating effects that his or her actions can have on the victim-giving someone a bruise or a black eye or calling them names is potentially damaging them for life. This scarring can prevent them from doing well at school or college, from falling in love, from doing well at the workplace and can even result in them contemplating suicide. The consequences of bullying can, in effect, be described as a long-term mental prison sentence for the victim.