Bullying And Depression: Does One Cause The Other?

Reviewed by Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Published 06/24/2022

Approximately 20% of students have reported being bullied at school, 30% have admitted to bullying others, and more than 70% of teachers in the United States say they have witnessed bullying. With statistics like that, it is important that we do something about it. The first thing that experts tend to do is gather the facts. And some of the facts are staggering.

What is Bullying?

First of all, what is bullying? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bullying is described as aggressive and unwanted behavior that includes an imbalance of power between the participants. Bullying typically includes:

  • Threats of harm or ridicule
  • Laughing at or making fun of a person
  • Telling others not to be friends with a person
  • Spreading rumors
  • Physically attacking someone
  • Verbally attacking someone
  • Exclusion of certain people from groups on purpose
  • Calling names
  • Cyberbullying through social media or texting

It Can Happen To Anyone

Unfortunately, bullying is not just a childhood problem, and it does not just happen in the United States. In fact, it happens in all age groups, all over the world, and even in animals and insects. Bullying can be seen by wildlife when the leader of a wolf pack drives one of the pack away in the act of dominance.

Baboons and other monkeys are known to bully each other as well. Dogs, cats, and even bugs do it. But animals are usually doing it to become the leader or dominant one, not to intentionally hurt someone. They do not gather up all their animal buddies and tease the weaker ones. But the weak typically do get pushed out of the pack or group. In animals, this is usually an act of survival.

Why Do Bullies Bully?

Bullying can take many forms and may be done by a schoolmate, relative, or even an adult. But when it happens, can it cause depression? Or does depression cause bullying? The truth is, both of these are common, causing a cycle of bullying and depression to continue on and on. In fact, more than 60% of those who admit to bullying others have also been victims of abuse or bullying of some sort.

There are other reasons that bullies turn to bullying. Some of these can be related to mental health issues, while others may be personality traits that cannot be helped. But it is good to know why a person would turn to bullying someone. Here are some of the reasons.

They May Be Insecure

Many bullies are looking for power. They are feeling insecure or insignificant and need to be able to have some kind of control over someone they see as weaker than them. You will not typically find someone who is confident and secure bullying anyone. They do not need to make others feel insignificant to make themselves feel better.

Bullies Are Scared

Often, it is fear that causes bullies to bully others. They are afraid of being singled out or picked on themselves, so they take it out on others. These are usually bystanders who have witnessed others being bullied. Rather than becoming the next target, bystanders may join in with the bully, so they are not next in line.

Maybe They Are Sociopaths

It is not common, but it is possible. Sociopaths, also known as an antisocial personality disorder, are unable to feel empathy, so they do not see anything wrong with picking on others. It may just be a natural part of their personality.

A true sociopath does not care whether they hurt someone because they are unable to feel hurt themselves. They will often bully others out of boredom or just to see what will happen. Sociopaths are typically almost impossible to treat because of their inability to care. But only 3.7% of the public meets the criteria for being a sociopath.

How Does Bullying Cause Depression?

Even though the physical effects of bullying disappear, the emotional effects can last for years or may never go away. If you are constantly being bullied and are unable to get help, the long-term effects can be long-lasting and devastating. Actually, one study found that some who were bullied as children still had mental health issues from it 40 years later.

Many studies have found that being a victim is a risk factor for both being bullied and becoming a bully. Those who are bullied also have higher incidences of drug and alcohol use and abuse, anxiety disorders, and suicidal ideation. But depression is the most prevalent mental health illness in those who have been bullied in the past.

What Is Depression?

Depression is referred to as someone who has symptoms of depression or has enough of the criteria for depression to be diagnosed by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). There are several types of depression too. But the most common ones caused by bullying are chronic or clinical depression. Some of the criteria include:

  • Feeling sad for more than two weeks
  • Losing interest in activities that you used to enjoy
  • Avoiding contact with others
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or helplessness
  • Changes in sleep pattern (sleeping less or more than usual)
  • Fatigued no matter how much you sleep
  • Moving or talking slower than usual
  • Feeling guilty or worthless
  • Eating less or more than usual
  • Losing or gaining weight
  • Trouble making decisions and concentrating
  • Forgetfulness
  • Chronic aches and pains for no obvious reason
  • Ideas about death and/or suicide

Does Mental Health Make You A Victim?

Because those who are bullied are subjected to abuse on a regular basis, they are more likely to have problems with self-esteem, which can lead to depression. However, another idea that has come from studies is that those who are victims of bullying typically have depressive or other mental health disorder tendencies, causing them to be victims of bullying in the first place.

The idea that bullies tend to single out those who are different strengthens these studies that suggest those with mental health illnesses are more often victims of bullying. So, is it that depression causes you to become a victim of bullying or that the bullying causes depression? This is similar to the chicken and the egg question. It is almost impossible to know the truth.

If this is the case, that those with mental health conditions are singled out by bullies, it reinforces the fact that mental health disorders need to be diagnosed and treated early. By getting treatment for whatever mental health condition you have, it can decrease the possibility of being singled out for being different or weak.

How Do I Know if I Am Depressed?

If you have any of the symptoms of depression stated above, you should take a depression test online to find out whether you need to talk to a professional or not. If you are young, it is important to talk to an adult about your feelings. If you are being bullied and have symptoms of depression, let someone know.

Becoming A Bully Because Of Depression

Are those with depression more likely to become bullies themselves? Actually, yes, the studies show that depression can cause bullying due to low self-esteem and feelings of anger or helplessness. Feeling like you are a victim (or being a victim) can sometimes cause you to lash out at others. In order to make yourself feel better, you may pick on someone who is weaker than you.

Are You A Bully?

Many people believe that as long as they are not hurting anyone that they are not a bully. However, you can be a bully just by being friends with one. Are you hanging around with someone who picks on other people? Do you laugh when they say something funny about a person even though you know it may hurt their feelings or embarrass them?

You may even be a cyberbully. Even if you are just joking around with someone, if you are hurting their feelings, you are bullying them. Have you ever used bad language online, and you know that you probably have friends that visit your page who may not like that kind of language? But you figure, oh well, they don’t have to read it. That can be considered bullying behavior too.

However, if you are being bullied and are bullying someone else to make yourself feel better, you are also a victim. Just because you have turned to bullying does not mean you do not deserve to get the help you need. It is this help that can stop the cycle of abuse and depression from continuing.

Bullies Need Help Too

So, does that mean that bullies need as much help as those who are being bullied and that it is not their fault? Yes, absolutely. Although it is the ones who are getting bullied that are at a higher risk for depression, that does not mean that those who are doing the bullying are not susceptible to depression.

What You Can Do To Help

Talking to an adult is the first thing you need to do. Whether it is a family member, teacher, or any other adult, you need to talk to someone, so you can get help. Although you may feel ashamed or afraid to talk to someone, it is important that you do so. And you do not even have to do it in person. You can ask for help online by contacting a hotline or online mental health professional. Do it today so you can start feeling better tomorrow.