“They’re just being kids” is a phrase you may have heard to rationalize bullying. But isn’t bullying an issue we shouldn’t allow to “just” happen?
Being bullied can be an isolating, humiliating, dark time. When you’re growing up, the acceptance of peers is so important. We want to be well-liked, maybe even popular, invited to birthday parties, etc. So when that acceptance is replaced with abuse, how can one cope?
Bullying can bear serious effects on an individual’s mental health, some that last long past graduation. According to a study led by William E. Copeland, Ph.D., of Duke University Medical Center, victims of bullying are more likely to develop generalized anxiety, panic disorder, or agoraphobia. The psychological implications also extend to the bullies themselves. According to the study, bullies are at risk to develop antisocial personality disorder and panic disorder. Both bullies and victims are at higher risk for depression.
Published in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, a 2008 review of 13 international studies by researchers at Yale School of Medicine suggested that there is an “increasingly clear [connection] that any participation in bullying increases the risk of suicidal ideations and/or behaviors in a broad spectrum of youth.”
Aside from studies and statistics, we can turn to narratives of real people to see how peer-to-peer abuse impacts their mental health. These are the real stories of four individuals who have been bullied as children or young adults.
Kilana attended a tight-knit private Catholic middle school, where she encountered vicious acts of bullying. The boys were more blunt in their verbal attacks, including leaving a profane voicemail on her phone. The girls took a more “behind your back” approach. They acted nice to her face only to gossip about her when she wasn’t present. Kilana, with very few friends at the time, felt helpless. She felt the only option was to “feed into the bullying.”
Dan experienced a little bit of bullying in middle school, but more so in high school. He was the main the target of mean-spirited jokes among his friend circle. They would pick on little things he did, causing him to anxiously over-analyze his everyday life. What hurt the most was that his closest “friend” was his biggest bully.
At her college, Jennifer started a film club with the hopes to create a community of other passionate cinephiles. However, her time was less enjoyable than anticipated when two women in the club constantly tore her down with brutal words, constantly attacking her personhood. It wasn’t until she told her mom about the incident that she realized she wasn’t just getting in an argument with colleagues–she was the victim of bullying. She eventually ended the club because the associated bullying was too taxing on her mental health.
Steve was a victim of bullying for most of his life. Bullying contributed largely to his social anxiety, a lasting effect of the abuse. In the sixth grade, Steve experienced quite possibly the most difficult time when he got the swine flu. The illness, an overwhelming load of school work, plus the social ostracization by his classmates, led him to attempt suicide. After a couple weeks in a psychiatric hospital, Steve soon left that school and transferred to a school for children with special needs where he hoped to cool down for a while. He experienced bullying furthermore in high school, until senior year, he finally felt more confident, mature, and sociable, leading to more friendships. Though one female classmate still sent a stinger his way backstage in the school’s theater. Steve recalls her saying, “Do you remember when we all used to hate him?”
Did bullying affect your school performance?
Kilana: “Definitely because the bullying took over. It was always on my mind.”
Dan: “It played a little bit of a role. It added stress and distracted from a positive school performance, so it didn’t help.”
Jennifer: “I was so invested in the film club that I didn’t pay attention to school. Self-esteem down, anxiety up.”
Steve: “Not really. The effects were more mental-health related.”
How did it affect your self-image? Mental health?
Kilana: “Self-confidence was non-existent. I had anxiety back then but didn’t know what it was. Bullying put this thing in the back of the mind where it feels the need to impress people. I was afraid to be myself. The person I was with my cousins who I loved being around was so different from the person I was at school.”
Dan: “It has a lasting effect. I still feel very anxious about being criticized by other people for the mistakes I make, or the way I act or behave. Also, it’s hard for me to trust people.”
Jennifer: “I’m sort of afraid to say or do something because I’m afraid of getting backlash. I have anxiety over texts. I’m scared to take on big roles now.”
Steve: “Now I’m very talkative. Nobody wants to hear what you have to say when you’re bullied. That did affect me. As a result, I have lower self-esteem overall. But my girlfriend has really helped build up my self-esteem.”
Did you ever seek any resources?
Kilana: “My mom knew a little but didn’t know the extent of the situation.”
Dan: “I went to therapy.”
Jennifer: “I tried talking to advisor of club, which wasn’t very helpful. I was already going to therapy--still didn’t help what was happening. What helped was removing myself from the situation.”
Steve: “At middle school for 7th and 8th grade, I took classes with high schoolers--got bullied there and went to principal.”
What do you now think of the people who bullied you?
Kilana: “They were young, they didn’t know better. They definitely had to be going through something. But at the same time, why would someone do that?”
Dan: “I’ve realized they suffered from their own problems. They were going through their own stuff and giving me a hard time--a way they coped with their own insecurities. But not an excuse. I’ve forgiven but I have not forgotten.
Jennifer: “I haven’t forgiven them. I still cringe at the thought of them.”
Advice for someone young being bullied?
Kilana: “Don’t care as much as people think. Understand your emotions. Find something that you love to do as a distraction.”
Dan: “Realize that you deserve better than that. Get yourself out of that situation. Cut them off as soon as you realize that they are affecting your mental health negatively. You deserve the friends who lift you up. Don’t be afraid to get help from an adult.”
Jennifer: “Talk to the people that you trust, they’re the ones who won’t make u feel like you’re doing something wrong.”
Steve: “It still hurts but it matters so much less the older you get. It helped me as a kid when my mom would tell me ‘it gets better.’ There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Of course, it can happen outside of school too–online, in the workplace, in nursing homes. Bullying is abuse. Anyone can be the bully and anyone can be the victim. As humans, we need to treat each other a little kinder.
If you are the bully, it’s never too late to say sorry, reassess your behavior, and talk to a trusted adult on how you can make things better. If you are being bullied, do not be afraid to speak up and tell someone you trust, such as a parent or a teacher. And if you see bullying, say something.
[Photo credit: TheDyslexicBook.com.]