Bullying and Mental Illness

Credit: Younique Counseling
Credit: Younique Counseling

Bullying was a topic of discussion at my family’s Thanksgiving get-together this year. At dinner, I noticed one of my little cousins was less shy than at previous Thanksgivings, and mentioned this to my uncle.

“I’ve been sending her to Taekwando. She’s learning how to defend herself against bullies. I never want her to experience that,” he said.  “Ever.”

And that’s all it took to get us into a heated discussion about bullying.

This widespread problem with bullying has become an important focus in the American media lately–much more so than when I was a kid. Between the 2011 documentary, Bully, and Cartoon Network’s airing of Speak Up in March 2012, there has been a wealth of popular material promoting anti-bullying and bullying awareness. October has even become the official “National Anti-Bullying Awareness Month.” I meant to post this back in October to create a more timely discussion. But really, the discussion of bullying is always timely, because it’s a pervasive problem that many children experience and carry into adulthood.

This past October Brown University released a new study at the American Academy of Pediatrics national conference that focused not on victims of bullying, but on the bullies themselves, and what drives them to bully in the first place. The study found that children who bully are 3 times more likely to have a mental health disorder, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), depression, anxiety, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and other mental health issues. They are also found to be at an increased risk of substance abuse, low academic achievement, and more likely to display violent or abusive behavior as they get older, which isn’t very surprising.

I’ve actually thought about this correlation between mental illness and bullies before. Here, I am not defining a “bully” as a person who gets caught up in group think and makes fun of that one kid in class just because everyone else does. I’m talking about serial bullies, the kids that switch from one victim to another, seeming to make it their daily goal to hurt someone. We’ve all seen those people, from elementary school through college, and even in the workforce.

Before reading about this study, my thoughts on this topic arose from reflecting on my own experience with bullies, and also from reading books, especially Stephen King books. King’s books might show, say, a psychotic killer in his childhood, and the childhood character is almost always portrayed as a relentless bully and menace to other children. In the study, childhood bullying likely indicates that something is psychologically unstable about a child, and while it doesn’t necessarily mean something as serious as the early stages of a psychopath, it still means something is abnormal.

It makes sense. I’ve always felt that there is something more going on with people who inflict physical or mental pain on others without remorse. But often it’s the victims of bullying who end up seeking counseling, suffering from anxiety, depression, or other mental repercussions. And there’s unfortunately no shortage of tragic stories of bully victims taking their own lives. However, this study is telling us that we need to see the bully as a prime candidate for mental health counseling as well. After all, the victims are only reacting. It starts with the bully and his or her mental disturbances that may lead to hurting others in the first place.

I have been bullied, and I know there were kids that had it worse than me, which has led me to have zero tolerance for that kind of behavior, no matter how popular or socially graceful a bully might seem. I believe that parents who notice or are notified that their child is expressing bullying behavior should have a mental health professional step in. This study has told us bullies are likely suffering from some kind of mental disturbance, and that we need to make professional help an option. If it can affect their mental health in a positive way, which will lead to less victims and greater success in adulthood, why shouldn’t we see bullying as something that will not be tolerated and that can be prevented?


2 thoughts on “Bullying and Mental Illness

  1. Very good point you make about the future success of bullies. As a soon-to-be high school teacher, I am very aware of the problem, and will try to use the school’s social worker to help the bullied and the bullies. If we can help them to resolve emotional issues while they are still young, perhaps we can create an adult who can function in society and make a worthwhile contribution.


    1. Thank you, Andrea! I’m so glad you are able to start doing something about this soon. And I’m sure you are going to be a terrific high school teacher!


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