Bullying and mental health
Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 05/04/2023
Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior where one person, the bully, deliberately and repeatedly tries to harm or dominate another person, the victim. It’s considered a form of abuse.
There’s often a power imbalance involved in bullying. Bullies may use their size, strength, popularity, or other advantages to control or intimidate others. They may also spread hurtful rumors or gossip about their victims.
Research suggests that around 20% of US students ages 12 to 18 experience bullying, but schools aren’t the only place where it happens.1 Bullying can also take place online, in the workplace, or even at home.
Types of bullying
Bullying takes many forms. Some are obvious, but others are subtle and harder to spot.
Physical bullying is usually the easiest to notice because it involves hurting somebody else’s body or doing damage to their property. It can include hitting, kicking, shoving, spitting, or breaking a victim’s belongings.
Verbal bullying involves saying mean or hurtful things to someone with the goal of intimidating, insulting, or humiliating them. Examples include name-calling, teasing, threatening, or making racist or sexist remarks. This type of bullying can be more difficult to pin down because it may be interpreted as jokes or banter.
Social bullying, also called “relational bullying,” involves trying to damage someone’s reputation or social status by excluding them from groups, spreading rumors about them, or deliberately making them feel left out or isolated. Boys and girls are equally likely to engage in social bullying.2
Cyberbullying takes place online, usually through social media or text messages. It can include sending threatening or hurtful messages, posting embarrassing photos or videos, or creating websites or social profiles that mock or humiliate someone. Because cyberbullying can be so public and long-lasting—and can be done anonymously—some experts believe it does more damage than traditional bullying.3
Workplace bullying involves mistreatment or aggression in a professional setting: for instance, a manager bullying a direct report or an employee bullying a coworker. It may include verbal abuse, threats, work sabotage, withheld information, excessive monitoring, or unfair criticism. About 30% of workers (and 43% of remote workers) report that they’ve been bullied.4
Why do bullies bully?
There’s no single answer to this question. Some bullies act out to improve their status or get what they want. Some may be trying to cope with their own feelings of insecurity, anxiety, or low self-esteem. Others may have witnessed bullying in their own families or experienced it themselves, and some people bully just because they think it’s funny or cool. Whatever the reason, bullying is never acceptable.
Bullies tend to be motivated by one or more of the following factors:
Needing power and control: A bully may want to feel like they have more power over a specific person or group of people, or in general. They may also want people to respect and fear them.
Looking for attention: Some bullies crave the spotlight they get from abusing others. The positive—and even negative—attention they get for their behavior can be addictive and validating.
Wanting to fit in: In some cases, people bully to feel more like they belong to a particular group or social circle. They may believe that hurting people or being aggressive will help their peers accept them.
Reacting to stress: Some people bully as a way of relieving their own stress or anxiety. They may believe bullying others will make them feel better about themselves or their situation.
Getting revenge: Some people bully to get back at people they think wronged them in some way. This can be in response to real or perceived wrongdoings.
Bullying is a learned behavior. In many cases, bullies learn from their families, friends, or peers that it’s acceptable. They may also see bullying on TV, in movies, or in video games and think it’s a normal or harmless way to treat others.
Do bullies have a mental health disorder?
Bullying isn’t a disorder on its own, but it’s been linked to mental health conditions like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and depression.5 Children who bully others may also be at risk of developing personality disorders later in life.
Children who bully others and are bullied themselves, known as bully-victims, are at an even higher risk of mental health problems than children who are exclusively bullies or victims.6 Bully-victims may experience young adulthood depression, panic disorder, agoraphobia (mainly among young women), and suicidal ideation (mainly among young men).7
How bullying affects mental health
Impact on victims
In the short term, victims of bullying may experience:
- Feelings of anxiety or depression
- Low self-esteem
- Guilt and shame
- Poor performance and absenteeism at school or work
- Sleep issues
- Social isolation
- Thoughts about suicide or self-harm
Prolonged bullying can lead to serious long-term effects, including:
- Anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Substance abuse
- Sleep disorders
- Personality disorders
- Suicide attempts
If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available now. Call the 988 Lifeline at 988 for free, confidential support 24/7, or text HOME to 741741 for the Crisis Text Line.
Impact on bullies
Bullying doesn’t just hurt victims—it takes a toll on bullies’ mental health as well. In the short and long term, bullies may have:
- Increased levels of anxiety or depression
- Poor performance at school or work
- Problems with relationships
- Substance abuse problems
- Anger issues
- Trouble with violent behavior, criminal activity, or antisocial behavior
How to help victims of bullying
If you see someone being bullied, you may be able to help by intervening and supporting the victim. You can try these tactics, while being sure to keep yourself safe:
- Stand up for the victim
- Report the bullying to a trusted adult or authority figure
- Record the incident (if it’s safe to do so)
- Create or join a group that combats bullying in your school or community
- Provide emotional support to the victim
Children and adults who are victims of bullying may benefit from:
- Individual, group, or family therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Art or music therapy
- Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
How to help bullies stop bullying
Parents should be on the lookout for signs that their child is bullying others, including:
- Excessive teasing or name-calling
- Physical aggression
- Verbal outbursts or threats
- Social isolation or exclusion
- Intimidating others
- Problematic online activity
- Prejudice or discriminatory behavior
The best way to help children stop bullying is to address the underlying issues that cause them to act out. You can help by:
- Talking to the child about their behavior and its effects on others
- Encouraging positive social behaviors
- Helping them develop empathy
- Providing constructive ways for them to express their feelings
- Offering support and guidance
Sometimes bullies need professional help to address deep-rooted issues behind their behavior. Treatment options that may help include:
- Individual, group, or family therapy
- Anger management classes or therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- Social skills training
- Medication (for underlying conditions like ADHD)
How to prevent bullying
For children who are being bulled, the best way to help is by creating a safe, supportive environment at home and at school. Parents and teachers can work together to:
- Build a positive school culture based on respect and kindness
- Establish and enforce rules about bullying
- Encourage children to speak up if they’re being bullied or see someone else being bullied
- Teach children how to stand up to bullies in a safe way
- Model respectful behavior
- Respond quickly and effectively when bullying occurs
- Develop and participate in parent and/or staff training on how to identify and address student bullying
In the workplace, employers can prevent bullying by:
- Creating a zero-tolerance policy for bullying
- Encouraging employees to speak up if they’re being bullied or see someone else being bullied
- Providing easy access to communication and support channels
- Responding quickly and effectively when bullying occurs
- Processing issues and concerns fairly
- Offering anti-bullying training for all employees
If you need help with a bullying situation or are looking for more information on preventing bullying, visit the following resources:
- The federal government’s Stop Bullying resource
- National Bullying Prevention Center
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry’s Bullying Resource Center
Bullying is a serious issue with far-reaching consequences. If you or someone you know is being bullied, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Visit our directory to find a therapist who can offer the support and guidance you need.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.