The Relationship between Bullying and Substance Abuse

Despite widespread institutional efforts, including initiatives on both the federal and local levels, bullying continues to plague schools and even adult environments all over the country. The unfortunate reality is that most bullies aren’t mature enough to empathize with their targets and thus often subject them to traumatic and potentially life-altering harassment. While bullies may be able to walk away and later disregard their past behavior as just them “being kids,” many victims often develop a lifetime of emotional baggage that follows them into their adulthood, including mental illness, low self-esteem and even problems with drugs and alcohol.

Following the Cycle

A recent article in The Lancet Psychiatry[1] illustrates the extreme long-term effects of bullying and suggests that those who are bullied by their peers suffer more severe trauma than those who are mistreated by adults throughout their lives. The study also indicates that bullying victims have a higher propensity toward anxiety and depression, which are common trauma-related triggers of substance abuse. They also have a higher rate of suicide contemplation and attempts. There is also significant research to suggest that bullies themselves are more likely to use alcohol and drugs[2].

Bullying and Trauma

The repetitive and traumatic nature of bullying causes many victims to form negative perceptions of themselves that they often carry with them into adulthood. These inherent feelings of inadequacy can cause them to lack the confidence needed to excel in their careers and in their everyday lives. Bullying victims often walk around with a constant sense of anxiety that they’re doing something wrong or that they’re not good enough to be doing whatever they’re doing. This is particularly true if the bullying behavior persists throughout the child’s entire school career, as is often, unfortunately, the case.

Manifestations of Addiction

Many victims of bullying don’t even realize the effect that it has had on them until they’re already suffering. They don’t connect the dots until they go over their past with their therapist to identify the underlying causes of their problem. In the meantime, trauma-related depression and anxiety have given way to alcohol addiction, or body image issues have given way to an addiction to diet pills, etc. There is any number of scenarios through which bullying can give way to addiction and they aren’t always obvious and may develop later in a victim’s life. This is part of the reason it’s so important to address these problems when they happen and educate potential bullies about the consequences of their actions. Many victims of bullying don’t even realize the effect that it has had on them until they’re already suffering.

Symptoms of Bullying-Related Trauma

If one looks closely, they might be able to spot bullying victims more easily than they realize. It is common for those that have been bullied to display an attitude of compliance and try their best to please everyone. This is also common in victims of domestic violence. It stems from an acute lack of self-worth and the compulsion to be liked and appreciated. These individuals will commonly defer their own beliefs in favor of the opinions of others and are less assertive than someone who has more self-confidence.

Breaking the Cycle of Bullying 

Bullying is not confined to the playground or the classroom. As we get older, there are still aggressive forces at work that will try to impose their will on others while marginalizing and diminishing their feelings. These incidents occur both in the workplace and in social situations. While bullying and harassment must be addressed both in schools and in society as behaviors that will not be tolerated, it’s also important to recognize that for the moment, they are unfortunate realities. If you someone you care about is being bullied by anybody, it’s imperative that you alert the proper authorities. 

Identifying Bullying-Related Trauma in a Clinical Setting

The revelation that bullying may have ultimately contributed to their some substance abuse may be jarring for some patients. Many may feel embarrassed that they allowed what they initially believed to be such an inconsequential part of their lives to impact them in such a profound and immediate way. Patients suffering from any kind of trauma-related substance abuse require a combination of group and individualized counseling along with whatever therapies are deemed appropriate by their therapist. These problems didn’t build up overnight and will require long-term, comprehensive care.

Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches is fully prepared to help you or your loved one overcome their trauma-related substance abuse. We understand that the toll that bullying can take in all stages of life and the psychological impact that it can have on victims. Our therapists and addiction care experts will help you confront the trauma that has led to your substance abuse and will help you learn to manage it in a healthy fashion. You don’t have to let your traumatic past consume you. There is hope. We can help.