Don't Be a Bully: The Effects of Bullying on Kids' Mental Health

on December 20, 2011

by Kim

Did you know that nearly half of all school-age children in BC report having been bullied in the last year? Forms of bullying included teasing, purposeful exclusion, and physical assault.

Connections have been made between bullying and a number of mental health issues. We know that children and youth who are bullied are more likely to experience stress and depression, to engage in self-harm, and to think about or attempt suicide.

So what can we do about it? I spoke to Dr. Dzung Vo, a doctor at the Adolescent Health Clinic at BC Children’s Hospital. According to Dr. Vo, it is very common for youth to be referred to the clinic for bullying issues at school. Dr. Vo thinks that the internet now makes it easier than ever to be a bully.

Some youth are at greater risk than others. Youth who are unsure of their sexual orientation, have a developmental disability, are obese, or are part of an ethnic minority are more likely to be bullied at school.

When I asked Dr. Vo about what might cause kids to become bullies, he explained that victims of bullying are not the only ones who experience mental health issues. Many kids who bully others are suffering from their own mental health challenges, or are having trouble at home. Bullying and acting up can be an outlet. It is a way for kids to cope with difficult emotions that they don’t know how to manage otherwise.

In younger children, the effects of bullying often present themselves as physical ailments. For example, children may come into the clinic complaining of a tummy ache or headache. Older youth often report feelings associated with depression, suicidal thoughts or attempts, difficulty at school, and problems with substance abuse.

Dr. Vo had some important advice for addressing bullying issues. The first step is for parents or caregivers to get involved. When Dr. Vo speaks to families, he often encourages them to connect with the school and advocate for changes at the school level. The aim is always to create a safe environment, where the bully is held accountable for their actions or is unable to access the youth that is being bullied. Sometimes this can be as simple as changing classrooms.

On a larger scale, you can get the whole school involved in a bullying prevention program or campaign, with the goal of creating a culture of safety and respect. These programs often involve posting anti-bullying messaging around the school, encouraging open dialogue in classrooms about the harms of bullying, giving kids an easy and anonymous way to report bullying incidents, and teaching kids about empathy and resilience (i.e.: the ability to bounce back emotionally after experiencing something difficult or stressful).

From the perspective of the youth who is being bullied, it is important do an assessment for a mental health condition, so they can get support if needed. This is especially true in the case of suicidality, which is very common among youth who are being bullied.

Kids can also develop coping strategies for their mood, and learn social skills that will help them deal with bullying in the moment. This can include mindfulness exercises, or strategies that help youth understand the connections between thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Below are some signs that your child may be a victim of bullying. Things to look for include:

  • changes in school performance
  • social withdrawal and isolation
  • acting out
  • changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
  • changes in social relationships

Recommended resources on bullying:

Photo courtesy of RJH School via Flickr


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BC Children's Hospital

This is an agency of Provincial Health Services Authority, providing provincial tertiary mental health services to the citizens of British Columbia. Programs include: Adult Tertiary Psychiatry, Geriatric Psychiatry, Forensic Psychiatric Services, Child & Adolescent Mental Health, Women’s Reproductive Mental Health, as well as the Provincial Specialized Eating Disorders Program for children and youth located at the BC Children’s Hospital.

Provincial Health Services Authority

Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) is one of six health authorities – the other five health authorities serve geographic regions of BC.

Ministry of Health

British Columbia Ministry of Health

RBC Children's Mental Health Project

RBC Children’s Mental Health Project is RBC's cornerstone “health and wellness” pillar; RBC Children’s Mental Heath Project is a multi-year philanthropic commitment to support community-based and hospital programs that reduce stigma, provide early intervention and increase public awareness about children’s mental health issues.

BC Children's Hospital Foundation

Through a wide range of fundraising events and opportunities, The BC Children's Hospital Foundation is united with its donors by a single, simple passion - to improve the health and the lives of the young people who enter BC Children's Hospital every day.