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Bullying: Where it happens and its mental health effects

Updated: Apr 23

I remember the sharpness of her finger as it dug into my back. I held my breath as I heard the tense slow words, “I told you to stop playing.” At the time, I was in the 5th grade; new to the school and the United States, I didn’t have a clue what I did to receive unwanted attention from-let’s call her- Amanda. I don’t remember her much, but I do remember she was a lot bigger and taller than me and every day at recess she would watch me and try to corner me, until I stood up for myself and firmly asserted that I wasn’t going to listen to her and that I made my own decisions. It took me years to realize I was dealing with a bully.

Bullies often make you feel as if you did something to elicit their behavior. The American Psychological Association defines bullying as aggressive behavior from the provoking individual who insistently and purposefully tries to demean or control the recipient with force, emotion, or other psychological tactics (Bullying, 2022). Bullying is common throughout school, but it is present in the workplace too, over the internet and sometimes in our circle. Surprisingly, the research on U.S. youth and bullying is outdated and sparse, but based on Department of Education statistics in 2019, about 22% of youth aged 12-18 reported being

bullied, with the statistics being higher for females at 25% than for males at 19% (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021). Students who identified as biracial were more likely to be bullied (37%) than white persons (25%), black students (22%), and finally Asians at 13% (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021). When comparing elementary and middle to higher schoolers, the range differed from 27% to 28% vs. 16% to 19%. (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021). The CDC is in agreement with research indicating that middle schoolers have the highest rates of bullying at 28%, highschoolers 16%, combined schools 12% and primary schools 9% additionally; those who identified as bisexual, lesbian, or gay were 81% more likely to be bullied than their straight peers. (Fast Fact: Preventing Bullying |Violence Prevention Injury Center CDC, 2023).

When identifying specific types of bullying in students aged 12-18, being a subject of a rumor was most common at 15%, insulted at 14%, excluded at 6%, physically assaulted at 5%, finally being threatened and coerced into performing tasks against their will was at 4% and 2% (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021). Cyberbullying is more likely to be experienced by older teenaged female 15-17 age range in the context of their appearance 17% versus 11% of boys and is more common in low-income households (Vogels, 2022).

How bullying affects mental health

Exposure to online content in the form of depressive content, profanity, hate speech, sexual content, violence, suicidal content, and cyberbullying all increased the risk for suicide in youth. Cyberbullying was the most prevalent risk factor, but depression related content was the strongest link associated with suicide. However, it is plausible that those who were experiencing cyberbullying over a period were also watching depressive content (Sumner et al., 2021).

Encouragingly,there has been a decline in the amount of bullying across the United States. When evaluating effects on mental health, victims showed a higher prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and agoraphobia; an increased risk for depression whereas bullies were mainly at risk for antisocial personality disorder (Copeland et al., 2013). Perhaps the most well-known study of bully victims and the effects on mental health in the US followed 1,420 subjects from childhood ages 9-16 and administered the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Assessment to determine rates and effects of bullying. The psychiatric variables assessed mental health diagnoses, socioeconomic status, family dynamics, and substance abuse and the confounding effects on bullying. When the subjects were followed into young adulthood at ages 19, 21 and 25; the victims were found to have a suicide risk of 24.8% versus 5.7% for the normal young adult population (Copeland et al., 2013).

Kiusaamista Vastaan or KIVA, translates to mean against bullying, it is program developed by Finnish professors for children ages 7 to 15 to prevent bullying by training students, teachers, and administrators to intervene whenever signs of bullying were present. Self-reported victimization decreased by 32% (Axford et al., 2020). Kiva is yet to be implemented in the United States as a standard program to address bullying. Another well researched, comprehensive program called the Olweus Bullying Prevention program was implemented in US grades 3-12.  The focus was on classroom and district policy implementation to hold regular class discussions, administer questionnaires to assess the prevalence of bullying and supervisory practices to mitigate risk factors that led to bullying. Its effectiveness was assessed over the course of two years-the absolute change was about 3% or 2,000 students who escaped from being bullied. (Limber et al., 2018).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for bully-victims helps to restore confidence and sense of wellbeing. The symptomology of PTSD and bullying are quite similar. The main differentiating

factor is the amount of time that the individual endures the stressor, for PTSD there is typically one specific event that may lead to PTSD, for bullying there are several repetitive patterns (Ferraz et al., 2023). Victimization leads to neurobiological changes, specifically hyperactivation of the amygdala and the stress of being bullied will have demonstrable changes in the 5HT signaling which triggers aggression and reactivity in the victims themselves. (Palamarchuk & Vaillancourt, 2022). CBT helps children identify their strengths, develop communication skills needed to resolve conflicts and self -reflect on past experiences. Unfortunately, there will be times when we encounter challenges and difficult people, but we must learn to identify techniques to mitigate conflicts with tact and diplomacy and CBT will assist the individual in developing a growth mindset and resilience.










Axford, N., Bjornstad, G., Clarkson, S., Ukoumunne, O. C., Wrigley, Z., Matthews, J., Berry, V., &

Hutchings, J. (2020). The Effectiveness of the KiVa Bullying Prevention Program in Wales, UK: Results from a Pragmatic Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial. Prevention Science.

Copeland, W. E., Wolke, D., Angold, A., & Costello, E. J. (2013). Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of

Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry, 70(4), 419.

Fast Fact: Preventing Bullying |Violence Prevention|Injury Center|CDC. (2023, July 31).

Ferraz, L., Rice, K., & Thorsteinsson, E. B. (2023). Bullying victimization CBT: a proposed

psychological intervention for adolescent bullying victims. Frontiers in Psychology, 14.

 (2022).  “Teens and Cyberbullying.” Survey conducted April 14th-May 4th


Limber, S. P., Olweus, D., Wang, W., Masiello, M., & Breivik, K. (2018). Evaluation of the Olweus

Bullying Prevention Program: A large scale study of U.S. students in grades 3–11. Journal of School Psychology, 69(69), 56–72.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2021, May). COE - Bullying at School and Electronic

Palamarchuk, I. S., & Vaillancourt, T. (2022). Integrative Brain Dynamics in Childhood Bullying

Victimization: Cognitive and Emotional Convergence Associated With Stress Psychopathology. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 16.

Sumner, S. A., Ferguson, B., Bason, B., Dink, J., Yard, E., Hertz, M., Hilkert, B., Holland, K.,

Mercado-Crespo, M., Tang, S., & Jones, C. M. (2021). Association of Online Risk Factors With Subsequent Youth Suicide-Related Behaviors in the US. JAMA Network Open, 4(9), e2125860.

Vogels, E. (2022, December 15). Teens and Cyberbullying 2022. Pew Research Center.


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