The Effects of Bullying on Mental Health

Much ado about nothing?

Bullying is an almost over-familiar phenomenon known to most of us. Yet, it is difficult to pin down to a few words, given that there is a very wide range of behaviours and dynamics that can be classified as bullying; situations where a party is left injured and the another party would have perpetrated that injury.

More specifically, bullying can be seen as a desire to hurt someone else, and the execution of a harmful action. It is characterised by not being a one-off situation, but with repetition of the harmful action, together with a physical or a psychological power imbalance.

Verbal abuse and physical aggression have been termed as direct bullying, in that they include directly aggressive behaviour. Relational victimisation is the use and manipulation of relationships and information in order to exclude or diminish someone. (Rothon et al, 2011).

In the past, bullying and being a victim of bullying was considered to be a normal, even if unpleasant, experience which would be encountered by young persons engaging in the formal school system and thus be widening their social network beyond the family boundaries.

Many would argue that bullying might increase resilience to adversity, by providing an ‘in vitro’ condition of what would be expected to be encountered in everyday life. Hence, research was not really considering bullying as an experience that could profoundly affect one’s well-being and pose a potential risk factor for mental health problems (Tolan, 2004).

Current research is challenging the view that bullying is a normal pattern between youths, and thus not harmful. Areseneault et al (2009) describe five main finding on the relationship between bullying victimisation and mental health.Individual characteristics and family factors predict which children become targets of bullies.

A very frequent message that bullied children receive is that they were unlucky – for having been at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Whilst this message may help alter the victim’s perception that they are the cause of their own misfortune, it might present a sense of inevitability, especially in cases of repeated and frequent episodes.

Research shows that persons with internalising problems, that is, with a tendency to withdraw and become anxious and depressed, with low self-esteem and reduced assertivity have an increased risk of being bullied in childhood.

Anxious children may send out signals that they are easy targets and would not retaliate if others are unpleasant to them. Rutter et al (1999) showed that heritability plays a significant role in the internalising traits, possibly explaining trans-generational bullying patterns.

Being bullied can be stable and persist over time.

Being bullied is not a situation specific event. It can last for several years, in different contexts, even if the rates of bullying victimisation tend to decrease as we grow older. Studies show that those children who are victimised over a longer period of time are typically exposed to high levels of harsh and reactive parenting.

In adolescence, victims of chronic bullying had the highest delinquency scores in mid-adolescence, whilst girls had the highest levels of self-harm in mid-adolescence. Children who are chronically victimised are most at a risk of developing harmful outcomes.

Bullied children show severe symptoms of mental health problems.

Bullied children manifest signs typical of psychological distress, such as incessant worry, pervasive sadness or nightmares. Whilst worry, sadness and nightmares can be expected in distress and can be temporary reactions, extended exposure to distress can precipitate pathological distress.

Victims of bullying show elevated levels of social isolation, depression and anxiety, and especially in girls and bully-victims, increased self-harm behaviours and suicidal ideations. Suicidal ideations among victims appear to be exacerbated by feelings of rejection at home, and by having parents with internalising problems (Herba et al, 2008).

Childhood bullying can predict increased suicide attempts up to age 25 amongst females, over and above the early symptoms of conduct problems and depression. Both victims of bullying and bully-victims show externalising behaviours such as violent behaviours and carrying a weapon.

There appears to be an iterative cycle, in that victims of bullying also show increased risks of bullying others. Studies have demonstrated that the effect of victimisation goes beyond the development of depression, anxiety and social exclusion. Problems experienced by victims are not merely minor difficulties but may include severe problems such as psychotic symptoms and suicide ideation.

The impact of being bullied can be long lasting on mental health problems.

The few long-term study results indicate that, by age 23, those children who reported being bullied at age 16 had increased levels of mood disorders and poor self-esteem, with 3.5 times increased the chance of being referred to psychological services.

Another study showed that boys who were bully-victims in childhood had an increased risk of committing repeated criminal offences between ages 16 and 20, very often related to poor emotional regulation and increased impulsivity.

Being bullied contributes uniquely to mental health problems.

A person may be prone to mental health difficulties to due to a range of genetic and family factors shared by members of the family and it is argued that these factors may make a person more susceptible to bullying.

However, it is crucially important to understand that bullying victimisation in childhood leads to mental health problems in late childhood and adolescence, over and above symptoms prior to experiencing bullying victimisation, genetic and family factors shared by members of the family.

How could bullying cause mental health problems?

Whenever, for whatever reason, we feel under threat, the body’s natural defence and self-preservation system isactivated. The biological response system responds by sending messages from the brain to the adrenal glands, causing the release of hormones which prime us to be physically and cognitively prepared for the stressor.

This is a normal and necessary response, however, when this mechanism is stimulated too frequently or too intensely, the stress hormones can adversely affect the brain, leading to the decreased ability of neurons to adapt and respond, leading on to symptoms of generalised anxiety, and depression.

To sum it up, bullying is not a phenomenon to be taken lightly. The damage and the opportunity cost inflicted by bullying is a significant cause of unnecessary suffering.

We need to work with the families to help protect against bullying, we can work with schools and work settings to promote a culture of intelligent kindness, and be sensitive to pick up on the early signs of bullying and isolation to bring out the best of human nature and capabilities.

Dr Anthony Zahra