Bullying and Suicide: Their Connection (And How to Prevent It)

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | May 7, 2024

Bullying comes in many shapes and forms, including physical contact, words, actions or other kinds of aggressive behavior. It is often directly or indirectly targeted at a specific person with the intention of causing humiliation or harm. With unrestricted access to the internet and social media, bullying has also developed into new forms of online harassment — about 46% of adolescents have experienced at least one type of cyberbullying.

Moreover, middle schoolers, girls and students in rural areas are all more likely to experience bullying at school. Bullying can cause your child or loved one to feel anxious, lonely, depressed or even have suicidal thoughts. We’re here to help you understand the link between bullying and suicide and how behavioral and mental health services can support your child.

In This Article

6 Types of Bullying

Bullies often attempt to control or exert power over another person to make that person feel excluded or intimidated. Bullies will often taunt and harass until they get a reaction from the victim, which can affect your child’s mental health and self-esteem. It’s important to be able to recognize the different types of bullying so you can better identify if your child or loved one is at risk:

  1. Physical: Physical bullying is often perpetrated by an individual or group who is bigger than the victim. This type of bullying includes any assault on an individual, including shoving, hitting, kicking, slapping, punching, tripping or damaging their belongings. 
  2. Verbal: Name-calling, threatening, disrespectful comments or ongoing cruel words are all examples of verbal bullying. Bullies may attempt to intentionally inflict harm on the victim by making rude remarks about their appearance, interests, disability or beliefs.
  3. Cyberbullying: This form of bullying can occur through emails, text messages and social media posts. Cyberbullying can include posting private photos, false information and mean messages that directly or indirectly target the victim.
  4. Relational: Also known as relational aggression or social bullying, relational bullying refers to targeting someone’s reputation or relationships to cause harm. This is a particularly challenging type of bullying to identify because it involves social manipulation or sharing confidential information. It can include insidious actions like embarrassing the victim in public, spreading rumors and social exclusion.
  5. Sexual: Inappropriate touching of any kind is considered sexual bullying or sexual harassment. Sexual bullying may also include pulling the victim’s pants down, making comments about their sexual activity or physical development or using harmful words, gestures and actions that are sexual in nature. 
  6. Prejudicial: Bullying that involves targeting a person because of their beliefs, opinions, race, religion or sexual orientation is considered prejudicial. This type of bullying often involves name-calling, physical aggression, relational aggression or cyberbullying based on the bully’s belief that the victim deserves less respect than others.

Types of Bullies Your Child May Encounter

Recognizing bullying can be challenging sometimes. Bullies have different motivations, personalities, goals and behaviors. Some bullies are better at being sly and cunning than others, leaving little evidence of their harmful ways. In many cases, the bully may need behavioral and mental health treatment as well. Here are some common examples of the types of bullies that can appear:

1. Bully Victims

Bully victims is a term used to describe bullies who have been bullied themselves. Their motivation for bullying others comes from the desire to retaliate against the pain they’ve endured by being bullied in the past, helping them gain a sense of power and control over their lives. Some bully victims experience abuse or violence at home.

2. Indifferent Bullies

Indifferent bullies can quickly become dangerous because they are often detached from their emotions and do not fear disciplinary action or bullying intervention.

These types of bullies can be extremely challenging to stand up to because they feel little remorse for their actions. Some indifferent bullies who appear cold and lack empathy may need professional counseling to address deep psychological challenges.

3. Popular Bullies

A popular bully is probably the most common variation you think of when you think of the word “bully.” These individuals often have big egos and thrive on the attention they get from humiliating others. Popular bullies may often come off as aggressive, condescending or overly confident in their approach when targeting a victim. 

Typically, popular bullies have a group of “followers” that may imitate them to feel powerful. In other cases, their followers tolerate or act alongside the bully because they want to be accepted and fear being targeted themselves. Popular bullies thrive in a school environment because they gain a sense of entitlement from their social status, fueling their desire to control others. 

4. Group Bullies

Some bullies operate within the protection of a group. Though they might not bully someone when they’re by themselves, they’ll engage in bullying tactics when insulated by their peers. There are many reasons individuals do this, including the fact that they want to be socially accepted by the people bullying so they don’t receive the same treatment. In other cases, group bullies may feel empowered when joining in with the other bullies because they feel less responsible for their actions. 

Does Bullying Cause Suicide?

There is no evidence to support that bullying universally and directly causes suicide. The majority of children and teens who are bullied do not engage in life-threatening behaviors. However, bullying and suicide and related. Adolescents who are involved in bullying are more likely to experience thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts than those who are not. This indicates that being bullied, in addition to other risk factors, can increase an adolescent’s chance of engaging in suicidal ideation, thoughts or gestures. 

Bullying can make a situation worse if a young person already struggles with depression, trauma or problems at home. Thoughts of suicide or attempted suicide are often higher for specific groups that are at a greater risk for bullying and victimization, such as LGTBQ+ youth

Some experts argue that associating bullying as the sole cause of suicide can be potentially harmful for several reasons, including that it:

  • Takes attention away from other risk factors, such as mental illness, family dysfunction or coping with a disease/disability.
  • Can put too much focus on blaming and punishing rather than giving critical attention to youth who need support and treatment.
  • Perpetuates the idea that suicide is a natural response to being bullied, potentially normalizing this response among youth.

The Connection Between Bullying and Suicide

Child, adolescent and teen suicide from bullying is a significant public health concern. It remains the second-leading cause of death among young people aged 15 to 24, with rates rising compared to previous decades. 

Though there is no single cause of suicide, research shows that adolescents experiencing adverse events like bullying are significantly associated with suicidal ideation and attempts. Bullying is often performed repeatedly by perpetrators to create an imbalance of power against the victim, causing them to feel constantly threatened and leading to significant stress. 

In some cases, bullying can lead to suicide. In others, victims will experience major emotional disturbances that develop over time. A study found that the risks of suicidal thoughts and behaviors were higher among everyone involved, including bullies, victims and bully victims. Bystanders are also affected psychologically by witnessing acts of bullying and mistreatment. Research indicates that bystanders are victims by proxy and may develop:

The Connection Between Bullying and Suicide
  • Depression
  • Substance misuse
  • Stress or fear related to retaliation
  • Increased feelings of guilt 
  • Internalization of suicidal ideation
  • Self-directed violent behavior, such as attempted suicide

What Are the Other Risk Factors for Youth Suicide? 

As we noted above, bullying is not the only cause of suicide. While it can certainly increase a young person’s risk for suicide, it’s important to be aware of the other factors that can contribute to suicidal ideation or suicide attempts in adolescents. They include:

  • Academic failure
  • Feeling pressure to overachieve
  • Poor or inappropriate coping skills
  • Family history of suicide
  • Family history of violence or sexual abuse
  • Changes in family structure
  • Discrimination
  • Community violence
  • Disruption of friendships and social networks caused by frequent moving
  • Having an unrealistically high expectation of themselves
  • Experiencing loss at a young age, such as the death of a parent
  • Lack of access to healthcare or education
  • Having a chronic illness or disability
  • Having a psychiatric disorder such as major depression, anorexia nervosa or schizophrenia

The Impact of Bullying on Mental Health

The Impact of Bullying on Mental Health

The bullying impact on mental health extends far and wide, affecting witnesses, families, friends and peers caught in the middle of the dyadic conflict between the perpetrator and the victim. Of course, the victims are the most impacted, especially damaging the well-being of children and adolescents. Victims of bullying are known to suffer from many psychological and physical health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Academic problems
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation 
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Emotional distress
  • Sleep deprivation 

All of these side effects may contribute to suicidal ideation risk. Sleep deprivation, in particular, is strongly associated with suicide attempts, poor daytime functioning and mood-related outcomes. 

Cyberbullying and Suicide

Social media platforms allow people of nearly all ages to share their thoughts anonymously if they wish. The advent of social media has given rise to cyberbullying, a form of online bullying. Cyberbullying can be even more harmful than traditional bullying because it can happen at any time and reach a much larger audience. Victims of bullying may have felt a sense of relief when leaving school for the safety of home, but having an online presence makes anyone vulnerable to personal attacks and harassment. 

Adolescents who experience cyberbullying are over four times as likely to have thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts, whether or not they were also being bullied in person. Kids, adolescents and teens are spending 17% more time on social media compared to past years, making it even easier for bullies to intentionally harass, embarrass or threaten your child online.

The Importance of Suicide Prevention 

Raising awareness about the effects of bullying, including suicidal ideation and attempts, can help protect children and adolescents. While it’s common for many schools to implement bullying and suicide prevention programs, raising this awareness is a multi-faceted task. The first step to preventing bullying and suicidal ideation is identifying students in need of mental and behavioral health services. 

When a child or adolescent is being bullied, they often feel hopeless and think there is no escape. Parents, teachers, guardians, peers and communities all play a vital role in creating a safe network of support, promoting positive relationships, teaching coping skills and encouraging young people to seek help when needed. 

Promoting Mental Health Literacy

An important aspect of bullying and suicide prevention is promoting mental health literacy, or the ability to recognize signs and risk factors of mental health disorders. It’s critical for parents, adolescents and teachers to educate themselves about the signs of mental illness and available help. Promoting and raising awareness of mental health in every space fosters environments where individuals feel safe to talk about these topics. Some ways to promote mental health literacy include:

  • Discussing reasons why people do not seek help.
  • Emphasizing that mental health challenges are common and treatable.
  • Teaching about the causes and symptoms of mental illnesses.
  • Explaining stereotypes and stigma surrounding mental health and why it’s harmful.
  • Describing how to develop and maintain positive mental health.

Building Resilience in Adolescents

Cultivating youth resilience and teaching coping skills can help adolescents deal with bullying experiences and potentially reduce the risk of suicide. Research indicates that resilience acts as a protective factor against depressive symptoms, suicide ideation and suicidal attempts. 

Another study revealed that individuals with greater resilience have lower odds of suicidality when being bullied. Building resilience in adolescents prevents them from feeling entrapped when bullied, providing them with hope to seek help and heal from emotional distress. 

Building Resilience in Adolescents

A sense of belonging and social support are key factors in building resilience against negative experiences like bullying. Children and teens can nurture resilience by engaging in problem-solving, calming activities, healthy thinking patterns and learning to accept that they will not always have the answers.

When to Seek Help

People of all ages often do not seek help for behavioral and mental health struggles due to shame, stigma or lack of knowledge about such services. If your child, friend or loved one exhibits the following signs, it may be time to encourage them to talk to a professional immediately:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Changes in sleep, appetite or weight
  • Avoiding school
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Appearing excessively worried, sad or afraid
  • Problems concentrating or learning
  • Isolation
  • Intense concern over appearance

Talking to a teacher, school counselor, pediatrician or mental health professional can help adolescents feel understood and reduce their suicidal ideation risk. If you feel that your child may be in immediate danger, including a mental health or suicidal crisis, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. This lifeline will connect you to free, confidential support in distress and offer prevention and crisis resources for your child in the event of an emergency.

Contact Hillside® to Learn About Our Outpatient Services

Contact Hillside® to Learn About Our Outpatient Services

The connection between bullying and suicide is a serious concern. By understanding this relationship, promoting mental health literacy, building resilience and knowing when to seek help, we can better protect our young people and prevent these tragic outcomes. If you think your child or loved one could benefit from mental health treatment for bullying, Hillside® is here to provide the utmost care and support. 

Our dedicated, knowledgeable team of clinicians, providers and therapists work together to determine the level of care that best fits your child’s needs. We offer day programs, residential care, Virtual Intensive Outpatient Programs (VIOP), in-home programs and outpatient behavioral and mental health services. We understand that asking for help isn’t always easy, which is why we’re here to help your child develop a life worth living. Contact us today to arrange effective, compassionate treatment.

Author

  • Hillside Clinical Education & Referral Relations Manager - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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Current Version
May 7, 2024
Written By: Angie Hoke
Edited By: Angie Hoke
May 7, 2024
Medically Reviewed By: Angie Hoke
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