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How Does Bullying Affect Mental Health?

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What is Bullying?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance, and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.” 

While the CDC’s definition focuses on children and young people, bullying can also happen to adults, and new research suggests that adult bullying is relatively common. One recent study, which defines adult bullying as “being subjected to repeated, negative behavior intended to harm or intimidate,” found more than 30% of adults have been bullying victims. 

So, bullying can happen to anyone — and it can come in many shapes and forms. The most common types of bullying include: 

  • Cyberbullying: is bullying that takes place online or through digital technology, such as social media, text messages, or email. It can include sending threatening or mean messages, posting embarrassing photos or videos, or creating fake social media profiles in someone’s name.
  • Verbal and emotional bullying: involves using words or actions to hurt, manipulate, control, or isolate someone. It can include spreading rumors, gossiping, or excluding someone from activities.
  • Physical bullying: involves direct physical contact or physical injury, such as hitting, kicking, pushing, or shoving. It can also include damaging or stealing property.

Immediate Psychological Effects of Bullying

It’s important to note that bullying can affect victims in both the short term and long term. The immediate psychological effects of bullying can include:

  • Anxiety and stress
  • Challenges with self-esteem and self-worth
  • Isolation or social withdrawal
  • Emotional distress (such as anxiety, shame, or hopelessness)
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Behavioral changes (such as skipping work or school or avoiding social activities)
  • Physical symptoms (such as headaches, stomachaches, nausea, fatigue, or sleep disturbances)
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Bullying can also harm academic performance, relationships, and overall well-being. It can be challenging for victims of bullying to trust others, feel safe, and believe in themselves. 

Long-Term Mental Health Consequences

Bullying can have severe and lasting adverse effects on mental health and overall well-being. Previous studies have shown that bullying can lead to long-term mental health problems, and those who experience bullying may be at higher risk of having a mental health condition. Victims of bullying may experience depression, anxiety, acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation, thoughts and behaviors. 

Research has also shown that victims of bullying are more likely to experience interpersonal violence, substance use and substance abuse, sexual violence, poor social functioning, poor mental and emotional health, and poor performance in the long term. Even witnessing bullying can have a negative impact on a person’s mental health and emotional health.

The Neurological Impact of Bullying

New research suggests that bullying can have a neurological impact. One study showed that bullying may cause physical changes in the brain — suggesting bullying is linked to changes in brain volume and levels of anxiety. It also found that bullying may increase the risk of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. 

Coping Mechanisms and Resilience

If you or a loved one are experiencing bullying, there are coping mechanisms that may help. Here are some coping strategies that can help you or a loved one deal with bullying:

  • Report it by talking to someone you trust (such as a friend, parent, teacher, or counselor)
  • Stand up to the bully (if it’s safe to do so)
  • Ignore the bully or walk away (if it’s safe to do so)
  • Try to stay calm
  • Avoid being alone (when possible) and build a support network
  • Take care of yourself and be gentle with yourself

Legal Aspects of Bullying and Mental Health

According to, both state and local lawmakers across the United States have taken action to prevent bullying and protect people in various ways. Some have established laws and policies, while others have developed programs for schools and local educational agencies. 

Most state laws require their school districts to implement procedures to respond to bullying when it occurs. If you are wondering what your state does to prevent bullying, you can look up your state’s laws on or through your state’s Department of Education.

Treatment and Recovery

If you see someone being bullied, there are things you can do to help and support the victim. Here are some tactics to consider while staying safe:

  • Stand up for the victim
  • Report the bullying to a trusted person
  • Record the incident (if it’s safe to do so)
  • Create a group that combats bullying in your local community or school
  • Provide mental and emotional support to the victim

If you have experienced bullying, support is available. Treatment approaches that you may benefit from include:

  • Individual, group, or family therapy (also called psychotherapy or talk therapy)
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Art or music therapy
  • Medication, such as anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication
  • A local support program or group in your community or school

If you or a loved one are experiencing bullying, you do not need to experience it alone. Support is available to you, and your support system can make a difference and mitigate the negative impacts of bullying.

Originally published: November 16, 2023
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