The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) define bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, involving an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.” Bullying happens everywhere, from hurled insults in high school halls to threats through social media and texting (cyberbullying).

When a child or teen is bullied, he or she can experience profound physical, social, psychological and emotional distress. Those who have been bullied are more than six times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with a serious illness, smoke regularly, or develop mental health issues. More often than not, victims of bullying develop progressive behavioral disorders (e.g. depression and anxiety) as a result of being harassed. When combined with a victim’s low self-esteem, these conditions may spur experimentation with drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with how helpless being bullied makes them feel.

And it’s not just the targets of cruel and unusual treatment who are likely to turn to substances.  Laura Crothers, a psychology professor at Duquesne University and expert on childhood bullying affirms that bullies are just as likely — if not more so — to use drugs as victims of bullying. “In terms of perpetrators, bullies themselves, there seems to be a connection between engaging in bullying and using or abusing substances. The idea is that children who are aggressive at a young age tend to seek out peers who are also non-rule governed,” Crothers explains. Teens who bully others are prone to a host of behavioral problems like vandalizing property, poor school performance, and early sexual activity. They are also often apt to try drugs and alcohol long before their peers ever do.

Perpetrator or victim, studies show that middle and high school students involved in bullying are more likely to use cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana. While these substances might be viewed as experimental, they can be gateways to more deadly drugs like opioids and cocaine, which are not unheard of on school campuses. If a child or teen is struggling with their self-esteem or grappling with a behavioral health disorder, drug use will only exacerbate these problems. This makes it all too easy for co-occurring disorders (e.g. mental health issues) and drug use to become a vicious cycle of harmful self-medication.

Bullying and Substance Abuse: Similar Signs and Symptoms 

Sadly, the risk factors for bullying and substance abuse overlap extensively. In many cases, the signs that someone may be the victim of bullying are the same as the red flags of a substance use disorder. If you’re a parent, educator or friend trying to uncover whether someone you know is being bullied (or using drugs), it’s important to pay attention to these changes in behavior.

Warning Signs Someone Is Being Bullied:  

  • Exhibiting signs of depression or anxiety
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia
  • Decreased academic achievement
  • School attendance issues
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies
  • Alcohol or drug use

Common Symptoms of Substance Use Disorder: 

  • Mood swings or erratic behavior
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Health complaints or skin conditions
  • Withdrawal from social settings
  • Secretive behaviors or uncharacteristic lying

Be More Than a Bystander

When it comes to the reality of bullying and the prevalence of substance use disorders in schools, there’s no beating around the bush: Something has to be done. Whether you’re a concerned parent, worried faculty member or dedicated friend, there are many ways you can nip bullying in the bud and prevent adolescent drug and alcohol addiction:

  1. Learn more about teens and addiction. The Recovery Village’s teen addiction resource portal offers answers to the most frequently asked questions about drugs, alcohol and adolescents.
  2. Take action in the school. For educators, the CDC recommends improving supervision of students, enacting and enforcing a school-wide anti-bullying policy and increasing communication between school staff, parents and guardians.
  3. Know your options for immediate assistance. The website compiled a list of common bullying problems, solutions and resources that can be bookmarked or used in a crisis situation.
  4. Don’t rule out counseling or rehabilitative care. If you’re the parent or guardian of a child or teen struggling with bullying, substance use or both, outside help might be necessary. Talk therapy and counseling can be highly beneficial for a young person struggling with their self-worth as a result of bullying. Rehab care can help a student overcome the scars of bullying that spur a substance use disorder. To talk through your options for free, call The Recovery Village today.     

Know the Facts: The Reality of Bullying

  • Almost 20 percent of high school students are bullied on school property
  • Nearly 52 percent of kids experience cyberbullying
  • School-age students who are involved in bullying are much more likely than those not involved to consume alcohol or other drugs
  • More than 17 percent of children try an illicit drug by eighth grade
  • Bullying is most prevalent in middle school, while substance use is more common among high school students
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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.