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Is Your Child Being Bullied? Children Who Experience Bullying and Depression At Greater Risk For Substance Abuse

bullying and depression | Just Believe Recovery

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Is Your Child Being Bullied? Children Who Experience Bullying and Depression At Greater Risk For Substance Abuse

According to a new study by the University of Delaware, children who experience bullying in the 5th grade are at an increased risk of suffering from depression in 7th grade, and ultimately consume alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco by the 10th grade.

The association between bullying and depression and substance abuse as long been taken as a given, but few studies have analyzed these links, garnered from subjects multiple times over many years.

About The Study

The research team compiled data from 2004-2011 from more than 4,300 children in three major cities, and boys and girls were represented equally. The students hailed from Birmingham, Alabama, Houston, Texas, and Los Angeles County, California. Latinos represented 44%, while 29% were African American and 22% were white.

Valerie Earnshaw, University of Delaware:

“We show that peer victimization in fifth grade has lasting effects on substance use five years later. We also show that depressive symptoms help to explain why peer victimization is associated with substance use, suggesting that youth may be self-medicating by using substances to relieve these negative emotions.”

Study results revealed that boys and youth of sexual minority and those suffering from chronic illness reported more peer victimization. However, age, obesity, race, or socioeconomic status appeared to be unrelated to more bullying.

bullying and depression | Just Believe RecoveryAccording to StopBullying.gov, schools should respect and encourage diversity, and children who are perceived as different in an unsupportive environment may be at a greater risk of being bullied.

Among the findings, 24% of 10th-grade students reported recent alcohol abuse, just over 15% reported use of marijuana, and less than 12% reported tobacco use. Girls of a sexual minority status were more likely to use alcohol than boys. Also, marijuana and tobacco use were both related to bullying among girls but not boys.

A Serious Issue

Bullying and depression lead to substance abuse, which may, in turn, impair development (particularly cognitive development) in adolescence, and increase the likelihood of further substance abuse and other mental and physical health issues in adulthood.


“There’s still sometimes this idea that peer victimization and bullying are a normal part of adolescence…But, this study adds to a growing body of evidence that peer victimization and bullying are not fine.”

“Youth who develop substance use disorders are at risk of many mental and physical illnesses throughout life. So, the substance use that results from peer victimization can affect young people throughout their lives.”

Earnshaw also encourages pediatricians to evaluate children for signs of bullying and depression, as well as substance abuse and notes that treatment for youth suffering from these experiences should be accessible.

The study was published online this month in the journal Pediatrics.

Signs of Bullying

bullying and depression | Just Believe RecoveryAccording to StopBullying.gov, talking to children who show signs of peer victimization or bullying others is critical to determining the cause of the problem, and the identification of warning signs is the first critical step to taking action. Signs may include:

  • Unexplainable injuries such as bruises or scratches
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, jewelry, and other personal items
  • Frequent head or stomach aches, feeling sick or feigning illness
  • Altered eating habits, such as skipping meals, refusal to eat, or binge eating
  • Sleep disturbances and nightmares
  • Poor academic performance and avoidance of school
  • A loss of friends or social isolation
  • Loss of self-esteem or feelings of helplessness
  • Self-destructive actions such as running away, self-harm, or suicidal ideations

Signs a Child is Bullying Others

  • Participation in physical or verbal altercations
  • Association with friends who bully others
  • Increasing aggression
  • Frequent visits to the principal’s office or detention, school suspension
  • Unexplained extra money or new possessions
  • Failure to accept responsibility for actions, and blame others
  • Concern over competition or popularity

Why Children Don’t Always Ask For Help

bullying and depression | Just Believe RecoveryAccording to data from the 2012 Indicators of School Crime and Safety, adults are alerted in only 40% of bullying incidents. There are several reasons why children don’t tell adults, including:

  • The child has a desire to handle the problem and regain control, and may fear they will be labeled a tattletale.
  • The child fear repercussion from the child who bullies them.
  • The child does not want the adult to know what is being said about them or done to them for fear of judgment, punishment, or humiliation.
  • The child may already be socially isolated and may find it difficult to talk to others, even adults.
  • The child may fear peer rejection, and therefore prefer to rely on protection from their friends.

Bullying is a very serious problem that has lifelong repercussions. It is not a necessary rite of passage. It can lead to severe mental illness, harmful substance use, and long-term negative outcomes for the victims.

Please talk to your children about bullying. You can learn more at StopBullying.gov.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology



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