Dr. Stuart W. Twemlow, a teacher-turned-surgeon-turned-psychoanalyst who has exhaustively researched anti-bullying programs, is the coauthor of "Preventing Bullying and School Violence," released this week by the American Psychiatric Assn.'s publishing arm. Twemlow gamely admits that virtually none of the hundreds of anti-bullying programs marketed briskly across the world has a record of consistent, well-documented success. And he thinks he knows why: because they are devised outside of the school system in which they're implemented and because they're imposed, usually from the top down, by well-meaning school committees or administrators without a wellspring of community support.
To that end, Twemlow and his coauthor, Frank C. Sacco, offer a "toolkit" for communities, school administrators and, yes, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, to structure an anti-bullying program that defangs the school bully by reshaping the school around him (or her). The role of the mental health professional, says Twemlow, is to do what he or she was taught to do: "Shut up and listen ... to ask questions and put a different slant on the problem."
Twemlow pays particular attention to empowering the "bystanders" -- an unmobilized army of kids or teachers who routinely witness bullying behavior but may not feel they can intervene. The book offers ways to identify which kids may be exceptionally vulnerable to bullying's toxic effects and how to draw them out of isolation and protect them from psychological harm. And he cites examples of schools in which bullies rule, even as desperate parents look to those who are thought to be in charge for help.
Calling bully-victim behavior a "public health crisis," Columbia University psychologist Jonathan Cohen praised the book as a guide for mental health professionals who want to become "essential change agents" in the lives of kids and their schools.
This may be a new role for psychiatrists, acknowledges Twemlow: While psychiatrists have long worked with schools to identify individual kids with problems, they will likely be greeted with hostility if they try to diagnose a whole community as needing therapy. But psychiatrists "know that kids don't function well unless they're in an environment that encourages it" and will step up to the task.
"I think they're ready for it," says Twemlow.