Bullying, Substance Misuse and Suicide

Bullying can have devasting consequences for young adults. Recent studies suggest that 28% of US students in middle school, and 20% of students in grades 9–12. have experienced some form of bullying at school.1 In addition, more than 50% report online bullying, also called “cyberbullying.”

What is Bullying?

Bullying is defined as unwanted aggressive behavior by a young person, or group of youths, against another child or adolescent. By this definition, the youth involved are not siblings or current romantic partners. Bullying typically involves a power imbalance, whether actual or perceived, and either occurs repeatedly or is likely to reoccur.1

Some examples of bullying can include:1

  • Physical, including tripping, slapping, and punching.
  • Verbal, including name-calling and teasing.
  • Relational/social, which involves excluding someone from a group, or spreading gossip.
  • Destroying the victim’s property.

Bullying can take place in person or through cyberbullying.Regardless of how bullying occurs, those youth who are more likely to be a victim of bullying are female, Caucasian, uncertain about their sexuality, or those youth who identify as LGBTQ+. Other studies have shown that youth with disabilities or obesity are more likely to be bullied by their peers. Certain personality characteristics, such as being insecure or unassertive, can also make a child more vulnerable to bullying.

Those who bully others tend to score high in levels of aggression and low in having empathy for others, as well as having higher levels of narcissism. They may come from homes where there is aggression and violence. Oftentimes, these youth are looking to gain status with peers or feel important.5

Cyberbullying is becoming a big problem too, especially among children and adolescents. With technology making it increasingly easier to reach out and connect with peers, there are more opportunities for potential harassment, especially from anonymous perpetrators.

Bullying and Substance Misuse

There is a greater chance of developing a problem with substance use if a child is a bully or the victim of a bully. One theory is that young people who bully often use drugs and alcohol as a way to be seen as “cool” and find increased social status, especially when they are involved with a troubled peer group. Children and adolescents who are victims of bullying may turn to substance misuse as a coping mechanism.

Signs of Bullying

If you are concerned that your child is the victim of bullying, there are signs of bullying that you can look for. These include:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Poor academic achievement.
  • Suicidal thoughts or gestures.
  • Wanting to stay home from school.
  • Unexplained injuries.
  • Changes in eating habits.
  • Numerous complaints of stomach aches or headaches.
  • Lost or missing items, such as money, electronics, or personal apparel.
  • Trouble sleeping.

In addition, the signs your child may be a bully can include:

  • Aggression and frequent fights.
  • Refusing to take responsibility for their behaviors.
  • Having friends who are bullies.
  • Being very worried about being popular with peers.
  • Suddenly show up with money or other items frequently with no real explanation.

Bullying and Suicide

Long-term bullying is associated with a variety of adverse consequences, including depression, anxiety, health issues, and poor academic achievement. Moreover, bullying can contribute to the risk of suicide and substance abuse.2

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month —a time to raise awareness and provide resources to help those struggling with mental health disorders and work to eliminate the stigma surrounding the topic of suicide. Suicidal thoughts, much like mental health conditions, can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, or background. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness:

  • Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death overall in the U.S.
  • 46% of people who die by suicide had a diagnosed mental health condition – but research shows that 90% may have experienced symptoms of a mental health condition.
  • 79% of all people who die by suicide are male.
  • Although more women than men attempt suicide, men are 4x more likely to die by suicide.
  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10–14 and the 3rd leading cause of death among people aged 15-24 in the U.S.
  • Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are nearly 4x more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth.
  • Transgender adults are nearly 9x more likely to attempt suicide than the general population.
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