Cyberbullying victim speaks out: 'It was the darkest time of my life'

McMaster University hosts Hamilton's first inter-school forum on Bullying Prevention. Kestrel McNeill shares her story of survival and offers suggestions on how to prevent bullying from happening.

McMaster student Kestrel McNeill tells of the mental health impacts of bullying

Kestrel McNeill says May 29th, 2015 was the darkest day of her life.

"I did attempt suicide."

A victim of bullying, the first-year McMaster University student told CBC Hamilton how, in her final year at a Windsor, Ont. high school, she endured months of public insults at school, negative comments on social media and frequent home 'drive-bys'. These incidents fuelled feelings of isolation and inadequacy.

I thought maybe it was my fault…what did I do to make this happen?- Kestrel McNeil, 19

And now, she wants to share her story with the hope of inspiring school officials, teachers and students to learn the complex problems with cyberbullying and social isolation.

McNeill joined the newly formed McMaster group Building Our Safe Schools (BOSS) which hopes to help eliminate bullying from schools. She'll be speaking at a local forum Saturday at the university on her experiences and how to combat it.

At 18, McNeill thought it would be easier to "disappear" rather than deal with constant ridicule by her peers.

I was tormented and harassed

"It got to the point I was losing close friends, I couldn't see an end to it. I thought it would be better if I just disappeared and it would be an escape from going back to school to face this."

At the time, McNeill was attending Belle River District High School in Windsor, Ontario. In her first three years she describes herself as being happy, confident and well-liked by teachers and students. It all changed her final year.

"My senior year of high school was the darkest time of my life," she said. "I suffered from severe depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts."

"I was tormented and harassed. They'd mock me and tease me when I would raise my hand in class…I was told I needed a trip to the hospital," she said. "It made me feel so isolated. I started losing friends, I thought maybe it was my fault…what did I do to make this happen?"

Lack of response was the most damaging

McNeill isn't alone. Assuming blame is a typical response from victims who suffer from prolonged bullying. McNeill is one of many who fall prey to cyberbullying and social isolation.

With advancements in technology, teens can be connected, socially, around the clock and in real time. The problem is, it means victims are connected to the people doing the bullying.

What teenage girls do to each other is psychological warfare.- Kestrel McNeill , Victim of bullying

Repeated phone calls from her mother and reports to school authorities offered little help.

And as McNeill describes, this form of bullying has left a lasting impression.

"What teenage girls do to each other is psychological warfare," she said. "I still suffer from bouts of depression, anxiety and I have difficulty making friends with other females."

For this reason, McNeill is sharing her story, hoping to raise awareness among students and school administrators. 

"My school failed to recognize the seriousness of the bullying," she explained. "Their failure to respond was perhaps the single most damaging aspect of the entire experience."

I would have likely become a suicide statistic

Her goal is to educate and empower students who may be suffering in silence or who may not have the strong family support she had.

"I would have likely become a suicide statistic."

So, how can schools prevent this behaviour from continuing? McNeill says the solution starts with understanding what bullying is, an awareness of the modern tools youth are using and having the support in place to help victims when they need it.

McNeill hopes to inspire a cultural shift by speaking at Hamilton's first inter-school conference on bullying prevention. She'll join other student leaders from BOSS on Saturday at McMaster University from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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