The Effects of Bullying on Mental Health

Bullying has affected children and teens for generations. But we’ve only recently understood bullying’s mental health effects, which extend beyond the victim to bystanders who witness it and the bullies themselves.

What is bullying?

The Centers for Disease Control defines bullying as a form of “youth violence” toward a victim involving unwanted aggressive behavior from a bully (an individual or a group). At the heart of bullying is a power imbalance—whether perceived or actual—of social status, wealth, physical strength or size. Bullying can be repeated over periods of time, resulting in physical, psychological, social or educational harm.

The prolonged nature of bullying makes it different from one-time behaviors or isolated incidents like arguments and fights. Bullying behaviors include: 

  • physical intimidation or harm—tripping, hitting, pushing or spitting on a victim 
  • social exclusion, making fun of the victim, teasing, name calling and/or insults
  • threats, property destruction, making the victim do something s/he doesn’t want to do
  • spreading rumors or lies about the victim

Cyberbullies torment their victims publicly, privately and/or anonymously through texting, apps, forums and gaming platforms. Rumors, threats and name calling are their usual weapons, but social media and texting allow cyberbullies to send victims explicit images, or send images of victims to others. They can also bombard victims with constant questions: Where are you? Who are you with? What are you doing? 

Unless it’s reported and removed, social media content is a permanent digital record that can cause problems for both victims and bullies. Teachers and parents may not notice cyberbullying until the problem becomes advanced.

Prevalence of Bullying 

One in five students age 12–18 say they have been bullied. It happens often, at least once a week in 14% of public schools. Instances are highest for middle schools, followed by high schools and elementary schools. 

An even greater number of teenagers experience bullying online. The Pew Research Center found that nearly two in three American teenagers have experienced cyberbullying. Because cyberbullying can be 24/7 and public, victims may feel they can never get away from it.

Children and teens at greater risk for being bullied are often thought of as “different” in appearance, sexual orientation, cultural identity or disability. They may be new to school and/or have fewer friends. Bullies themselves may be popular and well known, or on the outside looking in. They may be victims of past bullying or victims while they are bullying others. They’re more likely to bully others if they have trouble following rules, their parents are less involved and/or they view violence as acceptable.

“59% of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online, and a similar share says it’s a major problem for people their age. At the same time, teens mostly think teachers, social media companies and politicians are failing at addressing this issue.”

Pew Research Center

Mental Health Effects of Bullying

Bullying can affect mental, physical and emotional health during school years and into adulthood. It can lead to physical injury, social or emotional problems and in some cases, even death.

Bullied children and teens are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and sometimes long-term damage to self-esteem. Victims often feel lonely. Some victims may fight back with extreme, sudden violence; reports that in 12 of 15 school shootings, the shooters had been bullied. 

Bullies are at higher risk for anti-social, sometimes violent behaviors like getting into fights and destroying property. They often have problems with school, up to and including dropping out. They’re more likely to abuse substances and alcohol. This can continue into adulthood, when they are more likely to abuse their partners and spouses, or their children, or to engage in criminal behavior.

Bully-victims—those who both bully and are bullied—suffer the most serious effects. They are at greater risk for mental and behavioral problems than those who are victims or bullies alone. Rates of depression, anxiety and suicide ideation and behaviors are greatest in this group. 

Bystanders fall into one of two groups: those who act to stop bullying, and those who don’t. The latter could be afraid of retaliation and upset because they wanted to intervene and didn’t. They may experience increased anxiety and depression that can affect academic performance, and increase their use of substances, alcohol and tobacco. Bystanders who act to stop bullying, however, have beneficial outcomes, including increased self-esteem.

There is no direct correlation between bullying and suicide, which is usually not due to a single source of trauma. But bullying can contribute to the intense feelings of helplessness and hopelessness involved in suicidal behaviors. Victims or perpetrators who experience continued, frequent bullying are at greater risk for suicidal behavior. Bully-victims have the highest risk for suicidal behavior. 

Bullying victimization is an example of toxic stress, especially when it is cumulative and occurs year after year.

Evans, et al., Journal of Child and Family Studies

The Importance of Addressing Bullying 

Because of the potential mental health effects on everyone involved, it’s important to heed the warning signs of bullying.

Children who are bullied may come home with unexplained injuries, “lost” books or damaged possessions. They may have trouble sleeping and lose interest in favorite activities. If they’re afraid to enter the cafeteria at lunchtime, they may come home hungry. They might pretend illness to avoid school, affecting their academic performance. Some may avoid social interactions, while some may begin to bully others. Victims may try to cope by harming themselves or running away.

Bullies, on the other hand, may become more aggressive; their friends may include other bullies. Bullying behavior may be a mechanism to cope with stress or abuse in their lives. They may play the “blame game,” resisting responsibility for their actions. Unexplained extra money or possessions are also warning signs. 

Because bullying is traumatic for everyone concerned, it’s important to address it as early as possible. Parents and teachers can work to ensure safety and prevent future bullying. Stress management and relaxation techniques can also help. Best Day’s counselors are ready to help you and your child cope with any traumatic event. The first step is reaching out to our professionals so we can offer appropriate solutions and treatment.

How We Can Help You?

Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling is here to help you have a better day and find a better way. We treat a wide range of psychiatric conditions for both children and adults. Contact us today, we’re ready to help:

Fayetteville: (910) 323-1543  Fuquay-Varina: (919) 567-0684  Raleigh: (919) 670-3939  Greenville: (252) 375-3322