No matter what form bullying takes – whether it be physical, verbal, or through methods such as gossiping or intimidation – it is a form of psychological abuse. Thus, it should come as no surprise that bullying can have severe mental health consequences for those who endure it.
Low self-esteem as a result of bullying
Not surprisingly, bullying has a very profound and direct impact on a child’s self-esteem, and this damage tends to last well into adulthood. One study found that among adults who were bullied in their youth, 43% reported very low, low, or below average self-esteem. In comparison, only 6% of those who were not bullied report low or below average self-esteem, with none in the non-bullied group reporting very low self-esteem. The impact of bullying was also seen in the other direction. Forty-three percent of adults who were NOT seriously bullied as children rated their self-perception as either high or very high, compared to only 26% of those adults who were bullied in their youth. (Kidscape, 1999, p. 8)
“Being respected by others and being treated with respect are central issues as adolescents become deeply involved in the process of constructing a self-concept and putting together the outlines of a personal identity,” write Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 118). When a child experiences consistent and relentless assaults on their persona during this critical period when their social identity is being built, the consequences can last a lifetime.
Depression caused by bullying
When the despair one experiences from a negative environment persists over time, it becomes depression. Depression arises because repeated hurt begins to alter a child’s way of thinking and changes their view of the world. They develop a sort of learned helplessness and begin to view life in general through a more disparaging mindset, thinking that they’re doomed to be miserable and little can be done to change this. Depression can interfere with a child’s life in all sorts of ways. It saps mental energy, decreases motivation to succeed, it impairs cognitive functioning, and a depressed person’s mannerisms tend to cut them off from others, setting off a cascading cycle where their dark mood alienates others around them, which only worsens their depressed state and negative view of others.
Bullied children certainly have the ingredients present for depression to set in. A University of Washington School of Medicine study found that kids who are victims of bullying are 80% more likely to feel “sad” most days. (Colino, 2010) As we discussed in the opening section of this chapter, being bullied produces the most severe type of stress. It creates feelings of lost control and many other hurtful, psychologically toxic elements that are associated with depression. Topping it all off, bullying tends to occur over large spans of time, providing the final ingredient for depression.
So it’s little surprise that compared to their peers, kids who are bullied are 5 times more likely to be depressed. (Fox et al., 2003) Even more worrisome, individuals that were formerly bullied were found to have higher levels of depression and poorer self-esteem when followed up at 23 years of age, despite the fact that, as adults, they weren’t harassed more often and weren’t more socially isolated than their peers. (Olweus, 1994) This would seem to indicate that bullying can have severe effects which last well into adulthood, predisposing an individual towards depressive episodes later in life.
Other mental health problems as a result of bullying
Bullying can also lead to a variety of other mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders, social phobias, or borderline personality disorder. Psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, reports that “how popular a child was in third grade has been shown to be a better predictor of mental health problems at age 18 than anything else – teachers’ and nurses’ ratings, school performance and IQ, even scores on psychological tests.” (See also Aronson, 2001) A recent study in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that kids bullied at age 8 were more prone to psychological problems as teens and early adults. (Colino, 2010) And a 2009 study of more than 5,000 kids from different cities published in the American Journal of Public Health found that fifth-graders who feel they’ve been mistreated because of their skin color are much more likely than their classmates to have symptoms of mental disorders, especially depression. (Elias, 2009)
Bullying can also aggravate any natural vulnerability a child has towards schizophrenia or other mental health disorders, “turning on” the genetic markers that lead to this disease. A study involving 6,437 British 12-year-olds found that a child’s risk of psychotic symptoms was increased twofold if he had been bullied between the ages of eight and ten. If the bullying was more severe and frequent, the risk of psychosis was triple or more. (Costello, 2012)