Bullying. For a long time it was seen as part of growing up, something unpleasant, but ultimately an experience children recover from. Now, new research shows that bullying can actually have long-lasting effects similar to emotional, verbal and physical abuse. This is a big shift in our thinking on bullying. Here are three new ways mental health experts understand bullying.
1. There is no one type of bully or victim, and there are even bully-victims who act in both roles.
Bullies and victims come in many forms. Bullies themselves can be unpopular and marginalized (“delta bullies”), or popular (“alpha bullies” or “queen bees”), male or female, working in groups (“mean girls”) or on their own, and can be children or adults.
Victims can be just as different, too. We also now know that bullies and victims can shift between these roles (a group called “bully-victims”). Ultimately, which role someone occupies can change throughout the school years.
2. Playing any of these parts (bully, victim or bully-victim) has a potential impact on one’s mental and physical health.
There is often an understandable focus on victims of bullying, but it is more widely accepted now that bullies, victims, and bully-victims may all be impacted by their experiences.
Bullying is a stress on the mind and body. Victims are more likely to seek medical attention for vague physical symptoms, such abdominal pain or frequent headaches. Victims and bullies may also have depression and suicidal thoughts, attention problems, and falling grades.
In these ways, people who experience bullying show symptoms similar to those who are victims of other abuses, such as domestic violence. Some studies have shown that many bullies, especially those who also have been victims before changing roles, show more mental and physical health issues, too. All in all, it’s possible that no one goes unscathed when it comes to bullying.
3. Bullying can even have an impact into adulthood.
While bullying often peaks in the middle school years, the persistence of bullying in more subtle forms can continue into adulthood. Bullying has been linked to anxiety, depression, suicidality, and self-harm behaviors. Interestingly, bullying in childhood has also been associated with higher levels of inflammation in adulthood. Although it is not yet clear the full meaning of this, it does point to the idea that bullying may have long-term consequences for one’s physical health as well.
From this, it becomes clear that it’s paramount to reduce bullying from both an individual and public health standpoint. Thankfully, new data show that the rates of bullying as reported by children are decreasing. It is important to continue this trend by having an awareness of the impact of bullying and making sure that parents, teachers, and other adults can notice and help children navigate this often complex and impactful experience in their lives.
Sara Pawlowski, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Vermont Medical Center.