Bullying and Mental Health

Understanding what Bullying is and how it can affect a person's mental health is the first step in protecting yourself and your loved ones.
Table of Contents

We’ve all been bullied at some point in our lives, either as children or adults. If you’re lucky enough not to have experienced bullying, you’ve certainly witnessed it – just jump on Facebook for a few minutes if you’re in doubt.  And if we’re truly honest with ourselves, it’s likely that we’re all guilty of having been the bully once or twice as well; though we may not have even been aware of it at the time.

When you hear the word “bully” you probably immediately conjure up an image of a burly kid knocking over a meek kid on a playground and stealing his lunch. And this is definitely a form of bullying that can have lasting effects on the meek kids’ mental health for years to come. There are many different types of bullying though, and some of them aren’t as obvious as the mean kid on the playground example.

What Exactly is Bullying?

True bullying behavior consists of 3 things; aggression, an imbalance of power, and repetition. It may help to take a look at what is not considered bullying:

If someone curses you out in the grocery store parking lot for stealing their parking spot, that is not bullying. If you and your partner have a rare argument and voices are raised, you are not bullying each other. Someone who cuts you off on the freeway is not bullying you (though it certainly may feel like it).

However, if someone with power over you at work (such as your supervisor) consistently steals your designated parking spot and there’s nothing you can do about it, that would be bullying behavior. If your partner yells at you every time you forget to do something, that is bullying (and potentially abusive; it’s a fine line). 

The aggression aspect of bullying means that the person is purposely trying to intimidate you. The imbalance of power means that you (as the bullied) are in a position where you are powerless to do anything about what is being said or done to you. And the repetition means that the situation occurs more than once, usually over and over.

Forms of Bullying

There are three main categories of bullying. Keep in mind that our immersion in online school, work, and social activities has created an influx of different ways to bully someone. This will be discussed further, but it’s important to be aware of these 3 categories in order to gain a general understanding of what bullying can look like:

Verbal bullying

Social Bullying

Physical Bullying

Bullying can look many different ways. It’s more complicated than it was in the past because of the emergence of social media and everything else cyber-related. And remember too, bullying is not isolated to children. Adults can be victims and perpetrators of bullying just as easily – more easily than ever, really.

Bullying can happen in the workplace, at the gym, and in the area of the schoolyard where the parents hang out. It doesn’t just occur at recess, and it certainly doesn’t only occur amongst those under the age of 18.


Just last week Facebook released an announcement that they were updating their bullying and harassment policies in order to better protect people on their apps. That’s right – online bullying has become such a problem that Facebook is actually taking measures to combat “mass harassment”, and “online abuse”.

Facebook has consulted with free speech advocates, human rights experts, women’s safety groups, female politicians, and representatives of the LGBTIQ community in order to update their policies satisfactorily. This is how much of an issue online bullying has become.

Facebook is likely concerned with public figures such as politicians and celebrities being the targets of online harassment, but us “regular” people are vulnerable to this type of bullying as well. And it’s prevalent and vicious.

Cyberbullies can use any number of internet sources to bully their victims; texting apps, public forums, and gaming platforms are all potential hotspots for bullying. People can spread rumors, issue threats, send or post explicit pictures, or inundate the victim with constant questions or harassment. 

One in 5 students aged 12-18 report having been bullied. Close to 2 of 3 teenagers have experienced cyberbullying. Up to 59% of U.S. teens have been bullied or harassed online. 

This is why it’s important to be aware of the effects of bullying on mental health. No matter what your age is, it’s likely that bullying either has or will affect you or someone you love. 

The Effects of Bullying on Mental Health

The effects that bullying has on one’s mental health don’t simply disappear when the bullying stops. Many of these effects can last years, and even follow a child or teenager into adulthood. Bullying can cause feelings of rejection, exclusion, and isolation. Those aren’t feelings that simply fade away. Mental health and self-esteem can be significantly and permanently impacted by bullying, especially if it’s ongoing and incessant. 

Children who have been bullied are much more likely as adults to experience:

Bullying is a form of abuse. People who have been abused are more vulnerable to mental health difficulties in both the long and short term. 

Those mental health challenges can lead to further bullying, and potentially violence. Twelve of 15 school shooters were victims of bullying themselves.

Victims of Bullying

Those who have been bullied, and are also bullies themselves have a higher risk of suffering these ill-effects than those who are bullies or victims alone. They have a greater risk of behavioral and mental health problems. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide-ideation are greatly increased for this group.

“Pure” bullies tend to be confidently aggressive. They’re not usually bullied themselves, and they tend to have higher self-esteem.

Bully-victims on the other hand, are more likely to be high-strung, impulsive, lonely, depressed, and anxious. They are also more likely to suffer from injuries, including acts of self-harm. 

Bully victims are also more likely to be avoided by their peers, heightening their sense of loneliness and isolation, which just makes it even more likely that the bullying will continue. It’s a vicious cycle.

Treatment and Prevention

If you’re a parent, it’s good to watch out for signs of bullying in your children. If your kid comes home with missing books or damaged possessions, starts to struggle with sleeping, loses interest in their favorite activities, or comes home hungry every day (because they’re avoiding the cafeteria), they may be suffering at the hands of a bully. They may fake illness to get out of school, or their academics may start to suffer. 

These are all signs that it’s time to have a heart-to-heart talk with your child, even if their changed behaviors don’t end up being a reaction to bullying.

On the flip side, if your kid starts acting more aggressively, starts hanging out with kids who seem like bullies, stops taking responsibility for his/her actions, or appears to have extra money or possessions, your child may be participating in bullying behavior. 

Child bullies may be using bullying as a coping mechanism for stress or anger. Victims of child bullies need to be taken seriously and treated for the stress and trauma that bullying has caused. 

Regardless of your child’s “role” (bullied or bully) parents, teachers, and possibly counselors need to be involved in order to get to the root of what is causing the bullying so that it can stop. Problems are only going to get worse for both the bully and the bullied; it’s best to address them sooner rather than later.

For teenagers and young adults, it’s, unfortunately, more in their hands to do something about it. College campuses, for example, can experience high volumes of bullying, sometimes in the form of “pledge week” and other times just targeting the student who is “different”.

Talk to your teachers, professors, or a counselor if you’re experiencing or witnessing bullying. High School and College are meant to be safe places to learn and grow into a healthy adult; you don’t deserve to be bullied, and it shouldn’t be condoned. 

Treatment Plans for Children or Adults Who Have Been Bullied

Again, bullying is a form of abuse. Treatment needs to be directed in such a way that the victim can overcome the trauma of abuse. The 3 main goals are to:

If the bullying is still going on, that needs to be the first thing addressed. This can occur in many different ways; other parents, teachers, and possibly even law enforcement (especially if the bully is an adult) may need to become involved in order for the bullying to stop.

If the bullying has stopped, whether days, weeks, or years have gone by, the victim needs to get to the heart of how deeply and widely the bullying affected them. Adults who were victimized by bullies may suffer from addiction, low self-esteem, depression, or anxiety, in which case a specific treatment plan will be laid out in order to address these debilitating and potentially dangerous mental health issues. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help patients recognize their behavioral patterns that are no longer working and replace them with new ones. This involves addressing destructive thinking patterns and coping strategies and replacing them with ones that are better suited for their current goals and aspirations. 

People who have suffered bullying or abuse may have distortions in their thinking, such as feeling unworthy of love, and CBT can help to alleviate those unhelpful and self-destructive beliefs. 

Adult bully victims can especially benefit from this type of therapy; they have wounds to heal as victims and destructive patterns of behavior as bullies that need to be examined and discarded. They may be very isolated and feel extremely unlovable and unworthy of happiness. 

The Cycle of Bullying

No one deserves to feel unloved or unlovable, and bullies and their victims often do. There is help, hope, and recovery for victims of bullying, as well as the bullies themselves. People who lash out and hurt other people are usually hurting themselves. 

This is not to excuse or condone bullying behavior, but rather to shine a light on a topic that is becoming more prevalent in our society by the day. People in pain lash out. People who are lashed out at feel pain. This is a cycle that we can all become aware of, and help to put a stop to.


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