Today, more kids than ever are bullied. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that nearly one in four, or 22%, of all children are exposed to some bullying. For the most part, this is relatively light. Other kids are exposed to intensive, systematic, and merciless bullying at the hands of their peers. That’s crucial, considering childhood, whether early childhood or teen, is a critical time for social and mental development. Children ranging from 2-18 need support and care from their peers, but often, they get the opposite.
Today, social media and messenger apps can exacerbate bullying. A simple, embarrassing incident can turn into a video shared around a school. Children are viciously mocked, shoved, bullied online, and harassed online. Bullying also gets sexual, with millions of teens reporting having private images shared and mocked in public forums.
These forms of abuse are often committed thoughtlessly, but they can have long-lasting impacts on their victims. In fact, victims of childhood bullying can experience long-lasting mental health impacts, well into adulthood. Recognizing those impacts, and that bullying can result in long-term increased risks to mental health disorders, can help you or a loved one to seek mental health treatment. That’s crucial, considering just 41% of individuals with a mental health problem ever seek out treatment.
Lack of Confidence and Self Esteem
Bullying actively harms confidence and self-esteem, and at a point when children need it most.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that this, in turn, negatively impacts support networks. The result is reduced self-esteem, reduced trust in the self, and self-isolation. For example, 27% of bullied children in a study reported using bullying language on themselves. A further 19% withdrew from relationships with friends and families and another 19% saw declines in their performance at school. Plus, with 14% seeing declines in physical health because of stress, bullying can have a major immediate impact.
Bullying can be intensely traumatic. That’s true whether it’s an instance of an embarrassing photo being shared or long-term physical abuse by peers. Trauma like bullying impacts the brain and how it develops. In fact, exposure to bullying over a prolonged period can impact how different areas of the brain form and grow.
So, someone with significant exposure to bullying might see reductions in prefrontal cortex activity. You also normally see increases in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal systems. This means kids who are exposed to bullying have a harder time learning. They also have a harder time being creative or making friends. And, they’re more prone to reacting with a fear-response by creating adrenaline and cortisol. That results in higher stress, less enjoyment, and an increase in risk-taking behavior.
Plus, all of these changes increase risks to mental illnesses. For example, long-term stress, such as being bullied by classmates, can reduce Oxytocin productions. That can permanently increase stress levels.
Trauma and Increased Risk of Mental Illness
Trauma greatly increases your risk of mental illness and mental health disorders. This is influenced by changes to patterns, changes to habits, changes to the brain, and even increases in cortisol and adrenaline production. That results in long-term stress, vulnerability to mental disorders, an vulnerability to addiction.
For example, bullying has been linked to:
Increased vulnerability to mental health disorders
Changes in the brain that increase the likelihood of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, panic disorder, borderline disorder, and depression
Withdrawing from friends and family, leading to vulnerability and loneliness
Increased vulnerability to addiction through self-medication and increased risk-taking
Bullying is traumatic. Kids who are bullied are made to feel small, weak, and to be ashamed. And, often, society blames the victim. That’s especially true for boys, who are told to defend themselves or tuck their chins and take it. Girls, who are bullied more often, are quite often the targets of physical shame, being mocked publicly, and being humiliated in a sexual fashion. That has massive repercussions across self-esteem, relationships, and support networks, all of which increase vulnerability to mental illness.
Bullying is trauma. And, trauma is proven to increase risks of mental illness, physical illness, and reduced quality of life. This is most-well documented in the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, which profiled 17,000 people over a 2-year study. It was found that individuals who experienced adverse childhood experiences, such as bullying, were significantly more likely to have physical illnesses, to have mental illnesses, and to have done more poorly in school and career choices. The more ongoing or more frequent adverse experiences, the greater the total risks.
That’s understandable, considering even a single incident of trauma can have years-long effects. Individuals who are severely physically bullied can experience PTSD. That becomes intensely problematic as it affects development. Going to school with anything on your mind other than learning impacts learning. Fear and stress impact your brain’s ability to learn and grow. Eventually, it impacts who you are as an adult.
So, adults with a history of being bulled are significantly more likely to take risks, have issues with inhibition, are less likely to have close social bonds, and are more likely to engage in domestic violence. They’re also more likely to use substances or substance abuse as a coping mechanism. And, all of that increases risks of mental illness like depression and anxiety.
A Note on Adult Bullying
Not all bullying is conducted by children, on children. Thousands of Americans experience workplace bullying every year. While this doesn’t receive the same attention as childhood bullying, workplace bullying can be severe and impactful. 75% of all workers report being bullied. Further, most workplace responses are not helpful.
Bullying, at any age, can be a life-changing thing. The effects of bullying can change who you are as a person. They can result in mental illness, even 10 years down the road. If you or a loved one is struggling, or being bullied, it’s important not to stay quiet. Reach out, get help, and go to treatment.
Therapy can help you to overcome the mental obstacles imposed by having been bullied. It can help you to move past trauma. It can also help you to build new behaviors around fears and reactions, so that you can move on. And, if you or a loved one is being bullied now, taking steps to mitigate, avoid, and prevent that can help to reduce further harm. It’s always important to talk to a professional to assess your mental health, to assess the impact of bullying, and to help you find healthy coping mechanisms at any point after experiencing trauma. Bullying is no different.