Do you remember the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” If only this were true. The wounds inflicted by the harmful words and actions of bullies can have far-reaching impacts on a child or adult, causing far more damage than a bruised ego and hurt feelings caused at the moment. Learn about how bullying can lead to mental health issues and how to combat these negative effects.
Having been the victim of bullying can change the brain in ways that make one more susceptible to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and trauma.
Engaging in bullying behavior toward another person may be a sign of an untreated personality disorder.
Having a personality disorder that goes untreated can also lead to more serious mental health issues, such as antisocial behaviors over time.
Children, teens, and adults can all fall victim to bullying behavior. This could be bullying at school, during extracurricular activities, on the school bus, workplace bullying, or cyberbullying. There are various ways a person may be bullied.
What is bullying?
Bullying is the act of causing another individual to experience pain and humiliation while being in a position of power. Sometimes this power position comes from being in a place of social influence. Other times, it could be that the bully is physically much larger than their victims, or this position of power could be due to a position at work or financial influence.
There is also the power of being anonymous and engaging in cyberbullying. Bullying comes in many forms; it could be physical, verbal, or social. Bullying could involve one perpetrator or turn into a situation involving several people ganging up on one person, much like a pecking order with chickens. This is because the bully's power position can often influence other people to join in. Bullying could happen as one isolated incident, but it typically involves repetitive, ongoing behaviors.
The warning signs of bullying
As harmful as bullying can be, it’s not always easy to spot when your child or loved one is a victim. Since not all forms of bullying are physical, it may be difficult to read the signs. Even when bullying is physical, the victim may hide their injuries out of shame. If you’re concerned that someone you care about could be a victim of bullying, here are some warning signs to look out for:
- No longer wanting to go to school or work
- Avoiding social media
- Physical symptoms such as stomachaches or headaches
- Calling in sick to work or school
- Damaged personal items
- Physical injuries
- Lowered self-esteem
- Changes in eating or sleeping
- Sudden drop in school or work performance
- Symptoms of depression or anxiety
- Self-sabotaging behaviors
- Changes in mood
How to spot a bully
If you’re concerned that your child or loved one may be engaging in bullying behaviors, there are also some warning signs to look out for. These include:
- Frequent trips to detention or the principal's office, or write-ups at work due to social behavior.
- Mysterious acquisition of assets or financial gain that cannot be explained.
- Exhibiting aggressive behavior.
- Refusal to take ownership of one’s behavior and blaming actions on others.
- Highly competitive and concerned with social appearances and status or reputation.
- Involvement in verbal or physical altercations.
- Having friends who engage in bullying behaviors.
If you suspect that your loved one is either a victim of bullying or engaging in bullying behaviors, the sooner interventions are given to help heal these wounds and/or behaviors, the more successful your loved one’s future will be. A trusted licensed therapist, counselor, or psychologist can most certainly intervene in these situations.
The negative effects of bullying
Whether a victim of bullying or engaging in bullying behavior, research has linked both to mental health disorders. Those who engage in bullying have often been found to have untreated personality disorders. Furthermore, victims of bullying have been found by research to experience changes in their brains that can lead to mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder if left untreated. Untreated personality disorders can also accelerate with time if not dealt with, and can lead to more serious antisocial behaviors into adulthood.
Healing from bullying
It can take several sessions with a trained therapist to heal the wounds caused by bullying. This can help combat the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and low-self esteem that can be caused. Just as bullying has the power to change the brain, so can therapy. It can rewire the brain and repair the damage of bullying and help form positive thought patterns, and rebuild all that has been taken away. The most important factor in therapy and healing is having a good rapport with the therapist to feel safe enough to open up about the traumatic experiences. Because of this, it’s okay to shop around when looking for the right therapist for yourself or someone in your life who has had experiences with bullying.
Being a bully or a victim of bullying behavior is not an automatic sentence for having mental health issues. It is, however, a reason to get help via therapy so that mental health issues or symptoms do not increase and can be dealt with early on. In addition, learning how to manage stress, anxiety, and depression and setting boundaries with bullies is important for those who have experienced bullying. It can be a long road to recovery, but with patience and consistency, you can heal from the wounds of bullying and get to a place where you love yourself and can stand up for yourself assertively.
- Journal of School Violence. Exposure to School Bullying and Psychological Health in Young Adulthood: A Prospective 10-Year Follow-Up Study.
- Psychological Medicine. Bullying victimization in youths and mental health problems: Much ado about nothing?
- International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health. Workplace bullying as an antecedent of mental health problems: a five-year prospective and representative study.
- Pediatrics and Child Health. The effects of bullying.