Understanding the Relationship Between Bullying and Substance Abuse

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What is Bullying?

Bullying is behavior that exhibits unwanted or unwarranted aggression by one person toward another with a real or perceived power differential between the two that prevents the victim from stopping or counteracting the bully’s aggressive behavior. Bullying can occur in three forms: verbal, social, or physical.

  • Verbal Bullying: consists of using written or spoken words, and can be either overtly or covertly harmful, or both.
  • Social Bullying: consists of excluding or shunning someone, or otherwise trying to harm their reputation or social status. This can happen in both romantic and platonic relationships.
  • Physical Bullying: this happens when someone causes physical harm to another person or their possessions.

Technology in particular has given bullies a new outlet to harm others. Cyberbullying is very prevalent in modern society, and touches all three forms. The words or images used to cyberbully result in viral social consequences that can ultimately lead to the victim harming themselves physically through substance abuse as a coping mechanism, or even suicide.

The internet allows the bully to hide behind their computer, saying whatever they want with limited or no consequences in most cases. It also desensitizes many users to the fact that words can cause deep emotional and psychological trauma, so some people may cyberbully without realizing it.

Name-calling tends to happen in the beginning stages of bullying, whether in person or online. This kind of verbal abuse such is the most common type of bullying, and happens among people of all ages.

Who are the Bullies?

Bullies generally have anger management issues, may have diagnosed or undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and lack emotional intelligence. They also have a tendency to abuse drugs and alcohol, which may make the behavior worse or better when they are under the influence. Those with depression, anxiety, and/or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are three times more likely to be identified as a bully.

Recent public attention about bullying has focused primarily on school-aged children and bullying that happens amongst peers of that age group. Bullies in that population tend to either be extremely popular with their peers and have lots of friends, or they are social outcasts with very few, if any, friends. They tend to outwardly exhibit aggressive behaviors, have minimal parental guidance or supervision, enjoy violence, and hold negative opinions of those around them.

In reality, there is no age limit for being a bully. Bullies can be elementary school children being mean on the bus or playground, parents or grandparents verbally abusing friends and family members around them, couples in which one partner gaslights the other to maintain control of the relationship, and even narcissistic bosses who exhibit similar tendencies by actively intimidating employees to demonstrate power differentials. Rage, erratic behavior, and memory issues related to drug or alcohol abuse can also lead to or be the result of bullying.

It is also not uncommon for a bully to also be a victim of bullying. Whether a person is a bully, a victim, or a bully-victim, they are far more likely to have substance abuse issues than others.

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Who are the Victims?

Anyone can be a victim of bullying. In some cases, such as gaslighting a partner or hostility in the workplace, victims may not even realize they are being bullied. Those who are viewed as “different” from the group at large or as a threat of some sort to the bully tend to be targets. Victims are often selected based on their perceived inability to fight back and a lack of support from others in the group.

Traits or circumstances that may lead to bullying include:

  • Jealousy
  • Success
  • Social awkwardness
  • Weight (both over and under)
  • Economics (wealth or poverty)
  • Popularity
  • Self-esteem
  • Physical disability
  • Mental health issues
  • Weakness (physical or emotional)
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Emotional dependency
  • Drug and/or alcohol dependency

Often, reasons for targeting an individual aren’t limited to just one of these triggers. Aspects of self that a person is least likely to be able to change are the biggest factors. For instance, up to 62% of those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) report getting bullied at least once a week. Those with dependency issues may tolerate being bullied or subjected to other forms of abuse if the perpetrator is supporting their addiction in some way.

Others who might knowingly subject themselves to bullying include people with self-esteem issues in order to hang out with a group they feel is popular or well-liked, children or young adults under the care or guardianship of someone who bullies them, and individuals who need to maintain their employment in spite of a hostile work environment.

Many victims of bullying become bullies themselves, making bullying a learned behavior. Children in particular are impressionable, and learn social norms from their parents. If a parent is a bully, a child perceives that behavior as normal and socially acceptable. They do not know how to cope with the physical or emotional abuse they experience either at home or at school, and often impart the same abuse on others.

What are the Consequences?

Being bullied can lead to the development of mental health problems, substance abuse, violence, or impaired performance at work or school. Depression and anxiety are both common in those who are bullied, and can lead to self-harm or suicidal thoughts and attempts. Those who are bullied have much higher rates of suicidal thoughts. Bullied males are four times more likely, and females eight times more likely, to have suicidal thoughts than their un-bullied peers.

The self-confidence of those who are bullied is usually deeply damaged, and may cause significant weight loss, disordered eating, or substance abuse problems resulting in malnourishment. Many who are bullied incorporate those negative feelings into their everyday lives. The negative feelings can affect their work and social lives, diminishing their ability to be successful or build normal relationships. The mental scars left behind by a bully may never fully heal.

Older children tend to respond to being bullied by trying to fit in more with their peers, and take avoidance measures to reduce the risk of negative comments from others. Younger children tend to be more impressionable, and therefore are more likely to become a bully themselves.

Adults tend to know themselves a little better than children, and are less likely to resort to targeting victims of their own. They are also more likely to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. Adults usually have smaller social circles, so bullying may result in social isolation as a means to cope. For children, school is compulsory, meaning they must continue to endure their situation until specific countermeasures are taken.

How Can We Confront Bullying?

It is recommended that parents be made aware of bullying if their child is being victimized. Children should not be encouraged to deal with a bully themselves. If a child has come to a trusted individual for help, they must recognize that the situation is out of their control. Taking the time to learn about the details of what’s going on and provide reassurance that it is not the victim’s fault can help curb other negative consequences of bullying. For example, monitoring a child’s online activity and blocking a bully on all social media platforms can help prevent cyberbullies, and can help a child from struggling with the emotional effects of being targeted.

Understanding when substance abuse is a factor in childhood bullying is important as well, as it is an important predictor in who is likely to become a bully. Adults, on the other hand, must first recognize, and acknowledge that they are being bullied. Bullying can result in chronic stress, especially if it continues for long periods of time, resulting in an increased likelihood of substance abuse problems. Substance abuse in an adult loved one should be closely monitored, as it can result in them bullying others as easily as it might simply be a coping mechanism.

Seeking treatment for substance abuse may stop the bullying if the person using is the bully. However, for those using drugs or alcohol to cope, substance abuse treatment is just one piece of a more complex approach that is needed to help stop them from being victimized. This may mean seeking mental healthcare, getting a new job, getting a divorce, moving, or making other lifestyle changes.

Bullying should be taken seriously at any age, as even adults can fall victim to depression and self-harm — including substance abuse — if the situation is left unchecked.