Wed, 20 Jan 2021

Rachel Downie Stymies the hidden bully

Independent Australia
29 Nov 2020, 08:52 GMT+10

Bullied or abused people are familiar with a sick feeling that sits deep in the pit of the stomach. Was the abuse warranted? Did I cause it? Will anyone believe me? It's a shameful secret. It shouldn't be shared. It is paralysing.

In this humiliation lies both the power of the bully over their victim and the reason most abuse is never reported. It is also why initiatives such as Stymie - an anonymous notification tool for schools - are so vital.

Queensland Australian of the Year for 2020, Rachel Downie, has made it her mission to bring the devastating, yet alarmingly commonplace, occurrence of bullying out of the shadows to fight it head on.

The tragic suicide of one of her year nine students profoundly affected the former school teacher and became the catalyst that drove Downie to develop Stymie. Then there was also her own life experience, coloured by brutal physical and psychological abuse, both at home and at school. And the many incidences of bullying she witnessed as a student, an educator, as well as a mother.

These experiences led Downie to confront the underlying core - that kids in vulnerable situations feel unsupported, alone and, especially, fearful of speaking up.

Stymie provides a simple and anonymous system where children are empowered to report instances of bullying and other dangerous behaviours. They do so without fearing repercussions - of social rejection or, worse, actual physical danger. This effectively removes the bully's power, acquired by stealth, and returns it to its rightful owner.

Downie explains her moment of realisation:

Stymie is about creating that safe environment. It is not a path decorated with ribbons or plastic bracelets bearing cheerful platitudes. It is an organisation that butts heads with bullying on the ground: specifically, on the playground, in the home and on social media. Just last year alone, Stymie assisted with over 44,000 cases of bullying and abuse.

Says Downie:

Australia's child suicide epidemic

The death of a child is always heartbreaking but when it is by suicide it is as devastating as it gets for those left behind.

Downie shares a few statistics on Australia's horrific bullying epidemic:

Her voice, though steady, is laced with pain as she tells of "feeling sickened" and "shamed".

Driven and disarmingly honest, there is a palpable sense of urgency about Downie. Her positive energy inspires action in those around her. It is evident this is a person who knows how it feels to be unsupported and to have no voice. Her mother was mentally ill, her father a substance abuser and school was not a haven for the teenager. There, she was subjected to an abusive teacher and then mercilessly bullied by her peers.

Former classmate, Independent Australia founder and director, David Donovan, was good friends with Downie.

Donovan says:

He recounts:

Downie didn't confide her torment with Donovan, or any of her friends.

This is common among bullied children, according to psychotherapist Dr Jennifer Wilson:

Downie recalls:

There are a host of reasons why some people find abused people so confronting, leading to victim-blaming, says Wilson. These include facing their own vulnerability, contempt for any weakness, as well as a reluctance to accept unpleasant reality. Victims, rather than perpetrators, disturb the outer veneer of safety by speaking out.

Wilson explains:

Downie recalls an email received after news of her recent Queensland Australian of the Year award became public:

Why we need the Safe Schools Program: A victim's story

Turnbull's dwindling authority was trashed further yesterday after he caved in to the homophobic hard right to gut much of the LGBTI schools anti-bullying program. Bullying victim, T.C. Lubcke, asks whether more young Australians will have to face a similar story to his.

Downie pauses to consider:

Now considerably in the public eye, that's all Downie shares about those days - it's about the privacy of her own family, her wife and two young adult children.

The effects of bullying reverberate, says Downie.

Perhaps she hasn't really let it all go. But there is no doubt that the trauma Downie endured as a young girl has given her a unique ability not simply to empathise, but to recognise what needs to be done to empower children.

She says, "The best apology is changed behaviour."

And her words do seem to reverberate.

How the Australian media play a pivotal role in the bullying of women

By not addressing the manner in which Husar was slut shamed and how that shaming was further justified by other journalists, Julia Baird failed to inform readers of one of the main causes - the media, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

Downie's intense frustration is evident as she talks about the ways in which our society is failing kids.

She believes it's mainly because they don't feel they have the space to be more involved, but in Stymie, there is little participation on the part of parents.

"Kids don't just learn this stuff by osmosis; parents need to model the behaviour for them," says Downie. "At the risk of sounding like a cranky 50-year-old lesbian, the parents are often absent."

Downie stresses that parents need to ensure "explicit conversations around bullying behaviours" occur in the home, because, "some of us just suck at conflict resolution".

She believes social media, while it doesn't create harmful behaviour, can compound it:

She pauses for a moment.

According to David Donovan, Stymie is an amazing achievement:

Certainly, the mother of two has modelled the behaviour she wants her own children and students to emulate. With Stymie, Downie has provided a mechanism to tackle bullying. For the rest of us, perhaps it's about stepping up, it's about accepting responsibility and it's about having a relationship with our children.

Maybe for Rachel Downie, and also for those of us who didn't know and have never felt that paralysing sick feeling in our own stomach, it is also about considering the bullied shoes of others.

Downie says, "Nothing changes if nothing changes."

Find out more about Stymie or to make an anonymous notification about someone you believe is being bullied or harmed HERE.

You can follow managing editor Michelle Pini on Twitter @VMP9. Follow Independent Australia on Twitter @independentaus and on Facebook HERE.

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