Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

According to the CDC, bullying “has serious and lasting negative effects on the mental health and overall well-being of youth involved in bullying in any way including: those who bully others, youth who are bullied, as well as those youth who both bully others and are bullied by others, sometimes referred to as bully-victims.”

(CDC, “The Relationship Between Bullying & Suicide” Link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ZKnncCIv7tnRJpY8U_E_4uvQkzGPycQu62NMipq6FUs/edit?ts=5e9cbba4)

As a society, we work hard to stop bullying in our schools and online and move quickly to support victims. But too often we miss addressing the emotional health of the bully.

In my 12 years of experience as a social worker, I observed that youth who engaged in bullying behaviors were often suffering from a great deal of emotional pain and were not able to communicate what they were going through internally. Many had been victims of abuse themselves. I remember working with a 13-year-old adolescent girl (I’ll call her Sue) who was pretty notorious for being a bully at school and had been suspended several times for these behaviors. Through some authentic conversations and home visits, it was revealed that Sue was being molested by a relative. Sue was a victim of something horrific that she had simply no control over, and her coping mechanism was to bully others. When she was asked why she had not told anyone about the abuse, she stated that she was afraid no one would believe her, and she would be blamed for her relative’s actions. Sue experienced relief after sharing her situation and finding that the response was support, not judgement, as she had feared. This, in turn, resulted in fewer disruptive incidents at school.

In my practice, I saw the impact of being able to speak about any kind of emotional suffering in a safe setting. Especially in a group treatment setting, where many teens and young adults are able to have conversations with peers that help them realize they are not alone, the changes that are set in motion can save lives. Bullies need to be able to seek help just like victims of bullying. And that starts with being able to talk about their emotional health without fear of being judged or shamed for their behaviors.

Disclaimer: This blog is not meant as professional advice or counseling. If you are in emotional distress or experiencing thoughts of harm to yourself or others, help is available 24/7:

  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1–800–273–8255 (TALK) Spanish & English; Deaf & Hard of Hearing TTY 800–799–4889
  • Text HELLO to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor
  • Call 911
  • If you need mental health treatment but cannot afford it, contact Rise Above The Disorder, a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to making mental health care accessible to everyone: YouAreRAD.org