Childhood bullying and mental illness

child bullied and feeling lonely.jpeg

Mental illness can be a very difficult thing for us to understand. The fact that the majority of mental illnesses cannot be seen from the outside, in addition to the stigma that often surrounds them, means that people are often reluctant to come forward for treatment, or take part in scientific research. But as time goes on, and the conversations around mental illness open up, we are beginning to get a better understanding of what can cause them. In this blog, we will look at whether or not mental illness can be caused by childhood bullying.

Long-term Effects

Unfortunately, there have been few reliable studies carried out that investigate the link between childhood bullying and mental illness in adults. Studies like these need to take place over the course of decades, which poses all sorts of problems, meaning they are a lot less likely to be carried out. Fortunately, scientists from Duke University and the University of Warwick published a study on this issue in 2013.

Their study found major links between childhood bullying and adult mental illness. Their study involved 1,273 people, which they classified as either bullies, victims, or both. What they found was that bullying can have different effects on all 3 groups.

Victims of bullying were found to be at a far greater risk of developing a mental illness as a child compared to people who were not bullied. Depression, agoraphobia, anxiety, and panic-related mental illnesses were found to be far more prevalent in this group than the control group.

The study also found that those classified as bullies were far more likely to develop an antisocial personality disorder later in life, while those who were classified as both bullies and victims were most at-risk of developing a mental illness. These adults were more likely to experience depression, and to a greater extent. They also suffered from illnesses such as anxiety or agoraphobia, and were more likely to take their own lives.


A study published in December 2015 reported similar results. They found that 90% of children were not involved in ongoing bullying, and that only about 12% will be diagnosed with a mental illness before 30.

This study also divided the children into groups of either bullies, victims, or both. The researchers found that about 20% of bullies were diagnosed with a mental illness by age 30, whereas that figure is about 23% for victims. Just like the other study, this paper found that the worst-affected group is by far those who are both victims and bullies. 31% of this group were diagnosed with a mental illness before age 30.

Although further research into this issue needs to be conducted, the information out there has already provided valuable insight. Not only do these papers suggest that bullying could have long-term consequences on our mental health, it also highlights the importance of dealing with all parties. As the figures above show, bullies can be badly affected by their own actions as well as the actions of others. While it may be instinctive to demonise the bullies, the research clearly shows that all three groups are negatively affected, and perhaps further research into the root causes of bullying could enable us to reduce the prevalence of mental illness for all three. 

David Clarke