Out in the Open

Cyberbullying hurt her mental health, so she's teaching kids and parents alike how to stop it

Alex San Diego was cyberbullied in middle school. She says that rather than monitoring online conduct, adults should be encouraging young people to talk openly about mental health.

Alex San Diego says that bullying during middle school shoudn't be considered normal

Alex San Diego during middle school. Cyberbullying triggered mental health issues that lasted into her university years. (Submitted by Alex San Diego)

When she was in grade eight, Alex San Diego was the target of bullying.

But it didn't just happen at school. She says the attacks also played out online, specifically on Facebook, where a group of her schoolmates created a group called "I Hate Alex".

"To hear that people who had personally interacted with me and know me hated me and talked about it and gathered to talk about it was really tough. It made me have very bad self-esteem," she said, adding that it contributed to existing self-doubt and body image issues.

San Diego also got good grades and found the cliche of "nerds getting bullied" she had seen in movies was very real.

The norm has consequences

Brushing off bullying as something that just happens in middle school is not good enough for San Diego. 

I don't think we should be normalizing that kind of behaviour, not only for the kid that's hearing those things. The kid that is saying that is also going through something that's making them lash out.- Alex San Diego

Beyond a need to analyze why kids resort to bullying, San Diego said the actions can have serious consequences.

When Out In The Open host Piya Chattopadhyay asked her about the worst thing someone ever said about her was, San Diego responded, "Just like straight up to die by suicide, to kill myself. And that would make that person happy. It's kind of the direct cause of suicidal thoughts that I was having at the time. Going through that kind of trauma ... really pushed me into having a mental illness."

There's no place at home

San Diego said she felt unable to share what was happening at school with her parents.

"It was tough because both school and home were supposed to be a safe space for me to exist and be myself. But neither of them were and so, you know, I would just live every day feeling scared and feeling you know like I didn't belong anywhere."

As the oldest child of immigrant parents, she said she didn't want to burden them further with her problems. This caused her to start acting out and pushing them away.

Light at the end of the information superhighway 

After San Diego progressed beyond middle school, she said the bullying she had endured stuck with her well into university. She has since received professional treatment and said she is currently the happiest she has ever been.

She's also made amends with two of her bullies, both of whom she has talked to about their actions and what they were going though that led them to treat her that way.

"We have a good relationship where they really recognize who I am as a person ... They realize that I was just a human and a kid as well."

As an adult, San Diego is now working with Jack.org, a national organization devoted to helping kids deal with their mental health issues.

For Jack.org, Alex talks to a group about the importance of opening up about how they are feeling. (Submitted by Alex San Diego)

She believes adults should encourage young people to talk more openly about how they feel, both the bullied and the bullies, instead of just monitoring kids' online messaging. 

"It's more important to just speak to them about what mental health is so that if that person is dealing with their mental health by lashing out to other kids, or if they're being bullied... it's more important to let them know that they can speak up about what they're going through and that is really what would be the end to cyber bullying."

Even though the internet was a source of pain for San Diego as a kid, she now sees it as a place to connect and learn. 

"The internet is where I was bullied and traumatized but it's also a place where I connected to the things I was interested in. And I got to meet people from all over the world who genuinely care and support me. So [it's] a very important pillar in my support system."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Youth Mental Health"