Resources & Education

March 21st, 2016

The connection between bullying and substance abuse

Upset Teenage Girl With Friends Gossiping In BackgroundBullying has become a serious problem for many of today’s teens. Much more than teasing, and sometimes emotional rather than physical, being bullied can lead to significant emotional pain and trauma and leave lasting scars. When adults brush it off as unimportant instead of helping, some kids turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope—which can lead, over time, to substance use and/or mental health disorders.

Research shows that at least one in five high school students has been the victim of a bully. Bullying is aggressive behavior carried out with the intent to hurt, intimidate, or damage another person. It can be physical, such as one student pushing, hitting, or tripping another; or it can be verbal, such as kids calling each other a “slut,” a “fag,” or a “loser.”

Then there’s cyberbullying, which is on the rise because it’s so difficult to monitor. Adolescents use text messaging and social networks to hurt and humiliate their peers, and the bullying often reaches a wider audience this way.

Research also consistently shows the damage caused by bullying:

  • Teenage girls who have experienced verbal or cyberbullying have higher rates of depression than teen girls who have not.
  • Both male and female bullying victims consider suicide more often than their non-bullied peers.
  • Teens who are bullied have a greater risk of developing mental health disorders, including depression, panic attacks, anxiety, and agoraphobia
  • Bullied teenagers often struggle with anxiety disorders.

Bullying and Substance Abuse

Many teenagers turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to self-medicate and cope with their emotions, and those who feel embarrassed and powerless in the face of bullying are more likely to start. Alcohol and drugs can seem like the only way to ease the emotional pain they’re feeling.

  • Kids who are bullied at school are more likely to abuse alcohol—1.5 times more likely for students in grades 7 through 12. If they were verbally abused in middle school, that risk increases by as much as three times.
  • Bullied teens also tend to drink alcohol when alone, rather than in social settings, unlike their non-bullied peers.
  • Victims of bullying also smoke cigarettes and marijuana in higher percentages than students who are not involved in bullying did so.

Also, the abuse of prescription drugs among teens is on the rise because they are often easier to obtain than alcohol, cigarettes or marijuana—and when those drugs become harder to get, or too expensive of a habit to maintain, many abusers turn to heroin, the cheaper alternative.

How to Help

If your child has been the target of bullying, take necessary action to protect your child. Go to teachers, principals, or other school officials to get help in putting an end to the bullying.

If your child has already begun to drink or do drugs in response to bulling, find an alcoholism or drug recovery program that specializes in working with adolescents. They will know how to recognize the underlying or co-occurring conditions that come along with being targeted by bullies, such as clinical depression and anxiety disorders.

To be connected with appropriate resources in the Western New York area, please call the Painkillers Killer HOPE line at (855) 969-HOPE.

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