How Does Bullying Affect Mental Health?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 18, 2023
4 min read

Bullying may have a reputation as a schoolyard problem, but its mental health effects go far beyond the schoolyard. Bullied children face an increased risk of social and emotional problems in the short and long term, even into adulthood.

Bullying happens when one child has a physical or social advantage over another, and they use that advantage to act aggressively toward the other. 

Short-term effects. 

In the short-term, bullying can lead to:

These experiences can seem to fade away over time, but that doesn’t mean the child has “gotten over it.” Research increasingly shows that children who experience bullying are at a higher risk of mental health problems as they grow into adulthood.

Long-term effects.

The effects of bullying don’t go away when a child grows up. Research shows that young adults who are bullied as a child have an increased risk of mental health difficulties, including:

Mental Health Outcomes for People Who Bully

Bullying doesn’t just harm the victim. Research shows that young bullies are more likely to be aggressive and act out in other ways. 

They’re also more likely to feel less positive about the future and develop antisocial personality disorder as adults.

Children who are both bullies and bullied tend to struggle the most as adults. 

These children have the highest rates of anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and substance abuse, compared to children who are victims or bullies only.

This cycle of bullying and poor mental health isn’t inevitable. It may stop if adults learn to notice bullying and help children diffuse the situation.

Bullying takes many forms. It may be:

  • ‌Physical: Hitting, kicking, punching, etc.
  • Verbal: Name-calling, teasing, threatening
  • Social: Exclusion, rumors, encouraging other bullies
  • Virtual: Posting untrue things online, sending threats 

You may see some of these things happening, but not always. Bullying often happens when adults leave the room and children are alone together.

Instead, you might notice the effects of bullying, like a child who suddenly doesn’t want to go to school or isn’t talking to their friends anymore. A bullied child may also show physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, or changes in eating habits.

Starting A Conversation About Bullying

When you suspect bullying, it’s important not to wait for the child to say something. Initiate the conversation yourself and ask if they’re afraid of or uncomfortable around anyone at school.

It’s hard to know what to do when a child is being bullied. Don’t be afraid to ask. Ask the child to identify adults at school they trust. Find out if there’s anything the child thinks you can do to help stop the bullying.

Talk to them about healthy responses, too. Avoid the glib response of “just walk away” and brainstorm with the child: How can they feel mentally strong and safe around the bully?

Some kids enjoy having a snappy comeback for the bully. Others prefer to take refuge at a friend’s lunch table. Make sure the child knows that they don’t have to be friends with everyone — just one good friend can be enough to make you feel strong.

Remember, having a safe space to talk is hugely important for children’s mental health. It’s the difference between feeling alone in the face of a bully and knowing that they have someone at their back.

Every U.S. state requires schools to implement bullying prevention programs, yet one in every five students say that someone has bullied them. What’s more, 41% of students who have been bullied think it would happen again.

The problem is that children have their own social worlds, largely under the radar of adult eyes, and it’s hard to find a prevention program that will break that barrier. Punishment-based programs don’t work, and neither do strategies that require the children to “work it out” among themselves.

Positive school climates. When a school invests time and attention in building positive relationships among students and encouraging every child’s mental and emotional health, rates of bullying decrease. This includes giving teachers the tools they need to handle bullying among their students.

Social and emotional learning programs. Children need to learn to manage their feelings and regulate their behaviors. Social and emotional learning programs help by teaching them to understand how they feel and choose positive expressions. 

Open communication at home. Adults can’t intervene when they don’t know what’s going on, and children won’t volunteer information if they don’t feel emotionally safe. It’s important for parents to encourage children to open up to them so that if bullying does begin, the child knows they can get help.

Remember, children are still developing their managing skills. They need adults’ help in navigating their social world, whether that means direct intervention or just the support they need to make it through a tough time. It may seem like a small thing now, but it can transform their mental health in a big way.