Did you know 19.5% of high school students report being bullied at school alone? And while bullying can happen anywhere and to anyone, school is the most common place where kids and teens experience this repeated verbal, physical, or social mistreatment. Bullying is a complicated and multifaceted issue in schools, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless to prevent it. As we close out Anti-Bullying Month, we wanted to share some resources to better understand the connection between bullying and mental health, the ways bullying impacts different demographic groups, and some practical actions to make schools a safe space for all students, regardless of their identities.
Who is Most at Risk for Bullying?
Anyone can be a victim of bullying, but certain groups are at higher risk for bullying than others. In particular, LGBTQ+ youth are bullied at a significantly higher rate than straight, cisgender youth. In a 2017 national study led by GLSEN, 98.5% of all LGBTQ+ youth (n= 23,001) reported hearing anti-LGBTQ+ remarks at school. Another 87.3% reported experiencing harassment and assault on the basis of other personal characteristics, including sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, race, religion, and disablility. Research also shows that race, disability, and religion are common reasons for bullying. In a 2015-16 study, the U.S. Department of Education found that 23% of all bullying allegations involved harassment or bullying on the basis of race (second only to harassment or bullying on the basis of sex). The same study found that Black students experience racially-motivated bullying at a significantly higher rate than other groups. For youth with intersecting BIPOC and LGBTQ+ identities, the bullying is often compounded.
Bullying is a complicated and multifaceted issue in schools, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless to prevent it.
How Does Bullying Impact Mental Health?
It may seem obvious that bullying negatively affects a student’s mental health, but the correlation is not quite so cut and dry. In fact, children who are depressed, anxious or have low self-esteem are at a higher risk for both being bullied and bullying others. When a student is bullied, it increases their risk for depression, anxiety, decreased self-esteem, changing sleep and eating patterns, health complaints, and decreased academic performance. Bullying also negatively affects the students who bully and the students who witness bullying. Students who bully are more likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs and to drop out of school. Students who witness bullying are also at higher risk for mental health problems like depression and anxiety and increased use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Additionally, the heightened mental health concerns that ensue from bullying pose significant suicide risks. The suicide rate for Black youth (ages 5-12) is about twice as high as their white counterparts. And LGBTQ+ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. In many cases, these negative effects only compound the already increased rates of discrimination and mental health struggles among BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth. So while bullying can affect anyone at your school, it’s especially important to focus on creating a safe space for these traditionally disenfranchised groups.
What Can We Do to Prevent Bullying?
The bullying that happens in and outside of schools is not always within our control. However, schools that make diversity, respect, and support for all students a top priority may be able to protect some of their most vulnerable students and reduce rates of bullying. This could include:
- Using inclusive language
- Incorporating BIPOC and LGBTQ+ history and culture into your curricula
- Supporting diverse student clubs
- Ensuring school policies do not endorse discriminatory policies
- Adopting and implementing comprehensive anti-bullying policies
- Having conversations with your teachers and staff about the importance of inclusion
We cannot control our students’ behavior, but we can create an environment where everyone is welcomed and no kind of hate or discrimination is tolerated. In this way, anti-bullying efforts can extend far beyond a single month and instead be prioritized every day of the year.