Towards a program to stop bullying and mobbing Part 1

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Mon, 06/24/2013 - 18:47

Intervention experts provide essential guidance

How can we stop bullying of elderly and/or disabled persons living in subsidized housing? I see the work of Duffy and Sperry {1} as a guide and springboard for developing solutions for a broad range of institutions, including subsidized housing for elderly and disabled. The findings and conclusions presented by Maureen Duffy and Len Sperry in their book on mobbing (an extreme form of social bullying) are essential reading for anyone seeking to understand, prevent, and remedy bullying. They analyze mobbing in schools and the workplace in a systemic way, examining the individual, the group, and the institutional context.

Although there are programs and laws covering bullying in schools, and proposals for laws covering the workplace, there is almost no evidence-based guidance for housing. Thus while advocating for legislative remedies, we need some solid basis for devising intervention strategies and additional research. A good starting point is by Duffy and Sperry: Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions.{1}

The system has three parts

Duffy and Sperry address mobbing in schools and the workplace. They have complementary experience: Duffy is a clinical family therapist who has treated victims of mobbing; Len Sperry is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine and a consultant for organizations and corporations. Their experience thus covers the individual, the group, and the institution and thus provides the essential comprehensive overview of the system within which bullying and mobbing can thrive.

What is mobbing?

Mobbing is an extreme and vicious form of abuse using social bullying that involves not only peers of the target, but also institutional management—either by managers actively supporting the bullying or by failing to protect the target. The purpose of mobbing is to punish, isolate, and exile the target. It can have serious outcomes, causing victims to lose their job [or residence, in the housing context] and to suffer significant medical and psychological health problems resulting from stress, even to the point of postraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Injury, illness, suicide are fairly common outcomes. Homicide is not unknown. Mobbing is a much more sophisticated way of doing someone in than murder... —Duffy and Perry, p.3

The person targeted for mobbing is like a person accused of witchcraft in the Salem trials—once accused and brought to trial, the finding of guilt is assured. In mobbing, facts are distorted to prove the target is sinister and bad in order to get rid of them or end their influence.

Duffy and Sperry view mobbing as different from bullying, different in the impact on victims, and requiring different interventions and treatments. ...Mobbing is a systemic phenomenon that involves the interplay of organizational, group, and individual dynamics and behavior. Bullying lacks the element of organizational dynamics and involvement. —Duffy and Perry, p.4 A person who is mobbed is a victim, not a target, because they suffer injury and trauma.

Addressing intervention

Mobbing is a public health problem, insofar as everyone in an institution where mobbing takes place can be affected. The broad social context must be considered as a system: the role of the individual, group dynamics, and institutional policies and governance are all interrelated. This has implications for intervention: all parts of the system need intervention to support a healthy institution. Thus, a therapist treating a mobbing victim needs to be trained to deal with victims of trauma, abuse, and PTSD, and also to be aware of the group and institutional dynamics. Consultants to the institution need to guide individual and group attitudes for managers and staff, as well as helping create a framework for policy and practice.

Mobbing, bullying, and intervention in housing

Less severe forms of bullying (one bully against one target, social bullying by a group against one or more targets) are also harmful, but less drastic because only in mobbing is the institution permitting or participating in the abuse. All such forms of bullying are seen in subsidized housing, and in several cases which have come to my attention, management and staff are involved, making mobbing a reality in housing.

In housing I suggest that residents can benefit from consulting with experts (e.g., community organizers) in developing leadership skills and positive group goals as alternatives to groups focused on bullying. However, a tenant association is unlikely to overcome social bullying unless management is supportive of the association and is proactive and engaged to prevent bullying. And a tenant association itself can be subverted to engage in and support bullying and mobbing. Therefore, the institutional framework is a critical component in preventing bullying and mobbing in housing, just as in schools or business.

Going forward

I will develop the outlines of a model intervention program for housing based on observations and findings in subsidized housing, as well as drawing on the work of Duffy and Sperry and other researchers. As always, your comments and collaboration are welcome. Together, we can do this.


I am grateful to Maureen Duffy for graciously providing me with one of her personal copies of the book on mobbing. I am thankful to both Duffy and Sperry for their research, their hard-won advice, and their dedication to justice and decency.


{1} Duffy, Maureen and Len Sperry Mobbing: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions. New York: Oxford University Press; 2012

Links to the program articles

Towards a program to stop bullying and mobbing Part 1

Towards a program to stop bullying and mobbing Part 2

Towards a program to stop bullying and mobbing Part 3

Comprehensive program

Help free people from bullying

Our plan: educate and enlist Beacon Hill lawmakers

We need the help of all citizens living in subsidized housing in the Commonwealth to identify trouble spots, housing which is free of bullying that can serve as models, and to witness and advocate. Wherever you live, you can advocate for change in HUD policies through your elected federal officials.

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