In 2016 the New York Post reported that Danny Patrick, a 13-year-old boy from Staten Island, took his own life after he was mercilessly bullied at Holy Angels Catholic School1. The following year Rosalie Avila, a 13-year-old girl from California, hanged herself in her bedroom after months of relentless bullying from her classmates2. In 2018, Amy Everett, a 14-year-old girl from Australia also took her own life as a consequence of cyberbullying3. Her father invited the bullies to her funeral, saying on Facebook: “if by some chance the people who thought this was a joke and made themselves feel superior by the constant bullying and harassment see this post, please come to our service and witness the complete devastation you have created.”
These are three prolific cases of an increasingly common phenomenon: bullying, victimization and suicide. This increased emergence is a worldwide phenomenon, with research groups based in Chile4, Finland5, South Africa6, South Korea7, the United Kingdom8 and the United States9 all reporting associations between bullying, depression and suicidal thoughts in students. A more recent study published in 2020 examined the risk of suicidal behaviours in bullied students between the ages of 12 and 15 in 83 countries. Strikingly, the authors reported that the overall prevalence of suicidal ideation – defined as the formation of ideas or concepts surrounding suicide – suicidal planning and suicide attempts were 16.5%, 16.5% and 16.4%, respectively10. An increased prevalence of bullying was also associated with higher risks of suicidal behaviours. In Africa for example, the overall prevalence for suicidal ideation, suicidal planning and suicide attempts among students were 19.9%, 23.2% and 20.8% respectively, while bullying prevalence was 48%. These statistics were the highest for any of the 83 countries recorded. Why is something so unimaginable happening so frequently? Is there anything we can do about it? If we decipher the social and psychological factors responsible for the long-lasting consequences of bullying, we could successfully protect the Danny’s, Rosalie’s and Amy’s of the future.
Of course, we all acknowledge that victimization is cruel and entirely unacceptable. However, do we truly understand the bully-victim dynamic? As you are likely aware, bullying involves aggressive behaviour and is associated with either a real or perceived power imbalance. This behaviour is often repeated over time and can take various forms, including rumours, threats, and verbal or physical attacks. It is crucial to emphasise that this kind of emotional manipulation and dysregulation can have serious consequences. For example, it is probable that prolonged reductions in one’s self-esteem due to persistent bullying is responsible for increased depression prevalence in adolescents11. However, depressive symptoms also appear to manifest in preadolescent children. A Netherlands based study of 1118 children aged 9-11 measured victimization associated with bullying alongside a range of psychological and psychosomatic – a physical disorder often made worse due to mental factors, such as stress – symptoms including poor appetite, bedwetting, sleeping problems, depression and anxiety. The authors reported that victims of depressive behaviours had significantly higher chances of developing psychological problems when compared to children who were not bullied12. In some instances, the psychosocial symptoms actually preceded bullying victimization, with children who already displayed depressive symptoms having a greater chance of being newly victimized.
There is also a credible body of evidence which underlines potential life-long consequences as a result of bullying and victimization at a young age. In 2015, The Lancet published a study which analysed adult mental health consequences of maltreatment and bullying during childhood from two independent cohorts: the Great Smoky Mountains Study (GSMS) in the USA and the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) in the UK. Firstly, I should note here that a longitudinal study involves repeated observations of the same variables over a period of time. For example, monitoring weight loss or depressive symptoms over a 2-year period. In the GSMS, annual parent-child interviews were incorporated and bullying repeatedly assessed between the ages of 9 and 16. In contrast, the ALSPAC study assessed bullying with the inclusion of child reports at the ages of 8, 10 and 13. Overall, data from 1420 children in the GSMS and 4026 children in the ALSPAC were acquired for data analysis. The authors reported that children bullied by their peers were more likely to develop mental health problems as adults13. Even more startling, the development of mental health problems was higher in individuals who had been bullied when compared to those defined as being maltreated, which involved either physical, sexual or emotional abuse by an adult caretaker. What makes this study particularly pertinent is the utilisation of two independent cohorts from separate countries, emphasising that the association between childhood bullying and developing mental health problems as an adult is independent of differences in both social environments and cultural factors. However, the correlation between bullying types, severity and mental health problems needs to be further explored.
What about cyberbullying?
Comparatively, cyberbullying is a bit more difficult to define. While several definitions exist, Kowalski and colleagues succinctly defined it in 2014 as “the use of electronic communication technologies to bully others.14” Unfortunately, the global increase in social media presence over the last decade is directly responsible for the uncontrolled aggregation of cyberbullying which has also manifested. Unlike regular bullying which is often limited to school or college, cyberbullying is a constant barrier that many young people face. Further, because anonymity is easily attainable, more people may feel compelled to spit hatred towards others, knowing all too well it would be difficult to be punished for their actions. As a result, cyberbullying is why Amy Everett and so many others take their own life.
Research studies provide considerable evidence to the association between cyberbullying, mental health deficiencies and suicidal tendencies. For example, a 2018 meta-analysis – a type of study which examines data from a number of independent sources on the same subject to determine overall trends – of 26 independent studies identified that children and adolescents who have been victimized through cyberbullying were almost 2.5 times more like to self-harm, 2.15 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, over 2 times more likely to display suicidal behaviours, and 2.5 times more likely to attempt suicide15. It wasn’t just the victims however, as bullies themselves were 20% more likely to exhibit suicidal behaviours when compared to non-perpetrators.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, cyberbullying appears to also correlate with substance abuse in adolescents. A longitudinal cohort of almost 3,000 students in Los Angeles completed surveys at the beginning of the study (10th Grade, mean age = 15.5), with a 12-month follow up also being incorporated. The study identified five cyberbullying roles at baseline: (1) no involvement, (2) witness only, (3) witness and victim, (4) witness and perpetrator, (5) witness, victim and perpetrator. At follow up, the investigators examined substance reliance over the last 6 months, including alcohol, marijuana, prescription stimulants and prescription opioids. Startlingly, over 50% of the students were involved in more than one of the aforementioned cyberbullying roles, with all four active roles being associated with increased odds of substance abuse at follow-up when compared to students who were given the ‘no involvement’ classification16. The study strongly stresses that cyberbullying can have detrimental consequences not only for the victim, but also the bully and even the witnesses.
Are there any data discrepancies?
With any data, it is crucial to examine both sides of the proverbial coin. As such, it is important to note that a few longitudinal studies have found no associations between bullying, victimization and depression development. One Finnish study examined the correlation between childhood bullying and suicidal ideation17. The study included 2348 boys, all of whom were born in 1981. Bullying information was acquired from the parents, teacher reports and the children themselves at age 8. Depression and suicide ideation were then assessed through participant self-reporting during their Finnish military call-up examination at the age of 18. The study reported that bullies themselves were more likely to be severely depressed and report suicidal ideation when compared to boys who were not identified as bullies during their childhood. Conversely, for boys who were only victimized, the authors did not report any increase in suicide ideation incidence17. While this might seem contradictory to other studies, I need to crucially underline here that self-reporting often opens the door to bias. Firstly, 10 year follow ups may result in participant memory bias, with individuals often choosing to selectively ignore negative experiences from their past. I know this is something I have done on multiple occasions. Further, as an 18-year-old man in 1999, when mental health discussions were still shrouded in stigma (especially for men), would you have wanted to openly talk about victimization and depression associated with bullying? In addition, would reviewing such a circumstance become an issue for the military selection process? Victims in this study may have avoided discussing these negative experiences due to fear of potentially being classified as unsuitable for military selection. There are many confounding factors here that the study does not take into consideration.
What about the bully?
Most of the studies available which analyse the association between bullying and depression focus on the depressive symptoms of the victim. However, there is an increasing concern regarding the mental health of the perpetrators. Multiple cross-sectional surveys have reported elevated depressive symptoms amongst adolescents who report bullying their peers9,18. Cross-sectional studies incorporate a type of analysis which is taken at a specific time point; for example, at a particular age. Interestingly, in another study which compared self-reporting and teacher reported bullying status of students, self-reporting was associated with increased depressive symptoms whereas teacher reported bullying was not19. This study is particularly important, as it suggests that self-identification of bullying behaviour could result in the manifestation of shame, self-blame and guilt, all of which could be instrumental into catalysing an emotional spiral towards depression.
An increased risk of depression and suicidal thoughts appears to be particularly pertinent for teenage girls18. Research by Brunstein and colleagues identified that girls who reported bullying others more frequently may be at a higher risk for depression and attempted suicide when compared to boys18. This perpetrator-depression link appears to also hold true in children, although a study from the Isle of Wight reported that the probability of presenting psychiatric disturbances were highest amongst male bullies, presenting a 9.5-fold increased risk, followed by male bully-victims (7.9-fold) and female victims (4.3-fold)20. The study also reported that children who bullied others had a 5-fold increased chance of being in contact with mental health services compared to non-bullies. A more recent study by Dr. William Copeland and Dr. Elizabeth Costello from Duke University provides additional credence to these findings, wherein they repeatedly examined 1,420 children between the ages of 9-16 over several years, determining whether bullying could predict psychiatric issues and suicide. The authors reported that both victims and bullies alike had an increased risk of depression and panic disorders, alongside behavioural, educational and emotional issues21. Thus, social interaction and development may have stark implications for the development of mental health difficulties associated with the bullying-victim-perpetrator dynamic.
I wanted to emphasize here that bullying has devastating consequences, with mental health problems often manifesting for both the victims and the perpetrators. In many circumstances, bullies themselves undergo episodes of considerable unhappiness, frequently resulting to substance abuse and suicide, not dissimilar to that observed in victims. As a community, we need to identify this and help educate the youth of our society so they can learn become the best of us. It is time that we helped them learn from our mistakes. We owe it to ourselves to help them do better.
If you yourself want to learn more about the presence of bullying, depression and suicide within the youth, the CDC have an informative online booklet which is easily digestible. It provides insights into what school personnel can do to help, alongside providing links to further information for those who seek it22.
- Fleming L, Jacobsen K. Bullying and symptoms of depression in Chilean middle school students. J Sch Health. 2009;79:130–137.
- Kaltiala-Heino R, Rimpelä M, Marttunen M, Rimpelä A, Rantanen P. Bullying, depression, and suicidal ideation in Finnish adolescents: school survey. Br Med J. 1999;319:348–351.
- Liang H, Flisher AJ, Lombard CJ. Bullying, violence and risk behavior in South African school students. Child Abuse Negl. 2007;31:161–171
- Kim YS, Koh YJ, Leventhal B. School bullying and suicidal risk in Korean middle school students. Pediatrics. 2005;115:357–363.
- John A, Glendenning AC, Marchant A, Montgomery P, Stewart A, Wood S, Lloyd K, Hawton K. Self-harm, suicidal behaviours and cyberbullying in children and young people: systemati review. J Med Internet Res. 2018: 20: e129.
- Fitzpatrick K, Dulin A, Piko Bullying and depressive symptomatology among low-income, African-American youth. J Youth Adolesc. 2010;39:634–645.
- Tang JJ, Yizhen Y, Wilcox HC, Kang C, Wang K, Wang C, Wu Y, Chen R. Global risks of suicidal behaviours and being bullied and their association in adolescents: School-based health survey in 83 countries. EClinicalMedicine. 2020;19:100253.
- McLaughlin K, Hatzenbuechler M, Hilt L. Emotion dysregulation as a mechanism linking peer victimization to internalizing symptoms in adolescents. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2009;77:894–904.
- Fekkes M, Pijpers F, Fredriks A, Vogels T, Verloove-Vanhorick S. Do bullied children get ill, or do ill children get bullied? A prospective cohort study on the relationship between bullying and health-related symptoms. Pediatrics. 2006; 117:1568-1574.
- Lereya ST, Copeland WE, Costello EJ, Wolke D. Adult mental health consequences of peer bullying and maltreatment in childhood: two cohorts in two countries. Lancet Psychiatry 2015;2:524-31.
- Kowalski RM, Giumetti GW, Schroeder AN, Lattanner MR. Bullying in the digital age: a critical review and meta-analysis of cyberbullying research among youth. Psychol Bull. 2014;140:1073-137.
- John A, Glendenning AC, Marchant A, Montgomery P, Stewart A, Wood S, Lloyd K, Hawton K. Self-harm, suicidal behaviours, and cyberbullying in children and young people: Systematic review. J Med Internet Res. 2018; 20:e129.
- Yoon Y, Olivia Lee J, Cho J, Bello MS, Khoddam R, Riggs NR, Leventhal AM. Association of cyberbullying involvement with subsequent substance use among adolescents. J Adolesc Health. 2019;65:613-620.
- Brunstein Klomek A, Sourander A, Kumpulainen K, Piha J, Tamminen T, Moilanen I, Almqvist F, Gould MS. Childhood bullying as a risk factor for later depression and suicidal ideation among Finnish males. J Affect Disord. 2008;109:47-55.
- Brunstein Klomek A, Marrocco F, Kleinman M, Schonfeld I, Gould M. Bullying, depression and suicidality in adolescents. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2007;46:40-49.
- Wienke Totura C, Green A, Karver M, Gesten E. Multiple informants in the assessment of psychological, behavioral, and academic correlates of bullying and victimization in middle school. J Adolesc. 2009;32:193–211.
- Kumpulainen K, Räsänen E, Puura K. Psychiatric disorders and the use of mental health services among children involved in bullying. Aggress Behav. 2001;27:102–110.
- Copeland WE, Wolke D, Angold A, Costello EJ. Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70:419-26.