It’s an experience that can cause high blood pressure, and increase one’s chances for heart attacks and strokes. The stress and anxiety leads to drug and alcohol use, among other unhealthy habits. And it can all start with something as simple as “that shirt’s gay”.

Elementary and high schools in the Cree School Board kicked their efforts to tackle student bullying into higher gear in February with a school-board-wide program designed to promote empathy instead of punish misbehaviour.

Representatives from each school attended a workshop in Montreal where they learned building blocks designed to help each create a program suited to their school and community. They then returned home to collaborate with local parents to implement these principles in the communities of Eeyou Istchee.

“We talk about the difference between tattling and telling, about self-confidence and how bullying affects this,” said Catherine Eggimann, guidance counsellor for Badabin Eeyou School in Whapmagoostui. “But we’ve had to design it to keep kids interested and make sure they’re understanding.”

Badabin is just beginning to implement their program; weekly workshops are currently being given to Grade Five, and to Secondary One and Two.

“It’s still in the process of being developed. The final version isn’t out yet but we decided not to wait until this happens,” Eggimann said. “We have something to work with, so we should do something as soon as possible.”

Early on, Eggimann decided to deliver some workshops in the form of game shows. One week, students split into teams and, with the help of a slideshow, attempted to sort out the myths about homosexuality from the facts.

Willie J. Happyjack Memorial School, in Waswanipi, has a longer-standing anti-bullying program. Administrators at the school confirmed that sexual orientation, whether real or perceived, is increasingly becoming a reason for bullying.

“Last year we had a student in the computer lab while a girl wrote on the computer something like ‘so and so is gay and is a virgin’,” said Randy Martin, the academic counsellor at Happyjack. “And she printed copies and started handing them out in the building. This boy was devastated. I had a talk with him and he ended up leaving school and not returning for five months.”

It’s an extreme example, Martin admitted, but a good one to show just how painful bullying can be for some kids. He said their program combats this maliciousness by putting emphasis on promoting empathy as opposed to doling out punishment.

“Before, we tried to deal with the bullying behaviour directly,” said Martin, who has been aggressive in his implementation of the program. His verve for its potential is obvious in his speech. “But there’s a lot of research saying if we empower the silent majority, the students who witness it, the bully doesn’t have power any more.”

With this in mind, Martin follows a group discussion template. When a bullying complaint is lodged, they bring three groups into a room together: the bully, the target and witnesses to the event. These witnesses constitute the silent majority, peers of the bully who most often admit their disapproval of bullying behaviour.

The offending student hears the perspective of the victim, and of the witnesses, in an effort to open their eyes to the consequences their actions have. Then, this student is assigned a pro-social consequence: writing an apology letter or reporting 10 acts of kindness during a day, for example.

“It’s about giving back to the circle: when you bully, you take something away and this is about you putting something back,” said the upbeat Martin, confident in the potential of the program. “What it teaches is empathy, sensitivity to others and their feelings and respect for others.”

Bullying has increasingly been in the forefront of the public consciousness these past couple years. The importance of anti-bullying programs in school was further accentuated by the suicide of Majorie Raymond last November.

The Quebec government recently tabled a bill calling for a province-wide program to combat bullying in schools. The bill, which calls for an anti-bullying law and which was accompanied by the launch of the website, received criticism for its mechanics but was universally lauded for its intentions.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Institute for Health Research pledged $2 million to a five-year study on the effects of bullying on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Queer groups (LGBTQ). It will assess the long-term health consequences of bullying in school, and the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs across the country. The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc, said assessing these programs is a crucial step towards effective deterrents to bullying.

“For the most part [these programs] haven’t been rigorously analyzed, and part of what we need to know is not just whether or not they work but why they work,” said the University of British Columbia professor of Nursing and Adolescent Medicine. “What is it about having people who are gay coming into classrooms to answer questions change attitudes? Why do gay-straight alliances in a school help? Do they reduce bullying or just help people feel they belong?”

Saewyc expressed both support and interest in the empathy-promoting program at Happyjack. She confirmed that punishment often isn’t the best method of stopping this behaviour, but reiterated that it is hard to judge any anti-bullying program without careful analysis of its effectiveness. The most important thing, she said, is teamwork from kids, teachers, administrators and parents.

“It’s not just a full team effort, it’s a full society effort,” she said. “We have other kinds of issues that people used to bully others about – racism or disabilities or other kinds of circumstances  – so it really takes the whole society to say this isn’t okay, and to change the environment in schools so everyone feels safe and everyone feels like they belong.”

Back at Willie J. Happyjack Memorial, Martin continues to work towards this type of cooperation. He has met with the adults of his community many times to discuss strategies and how the program is being implemented. He has designed one-off refresher courses for students, to make sure what they learned in his eight session program isn’t forgotten.

While potential bullies must learn not to forget, the victim, Martin said, often wishes they could do just that.

“It can be devastating, people don’t realize the impact,” he said, a sombre tone overtaking the hopefulness he exuded throughout the conversation. “Usually the bully never remembers. But the victim never forgets.”