Bullying and Depression

By and — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Apr 26, 2010

A common misconception about bullying is that this phenomenon does not result in negative long-term consequences. In reality, children and adolescents who are involved in bullying face a host of psychological difficulties. Oppositional defiant disorder (8), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and depression have been identified as mental health disorders that are associated with bullying (3).  

Consequently, it is vital that parents and teachers become familiar with the signs of depression in youth and understand the factors that may be triggers for depressive symptoms in bullies, victims, and bully-victims (i.e., individuals who bully others and are also the targets of bullying). Once the connection between bullying and depression is understood, individuals will be better prepared to select interventions that combat both bullying behaviors and depression.

What is Depression?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) there are three depressive disorders (1):

  • Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is characterized by one or more Major Depressive Episodes, which are periods of depressed mood or loss of interest that endure for at least two weeks at a time (18).  Other symptoms of MDD include loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness, diminished concentration, suicidal ideation, and changes in sleep, weight, or psychomotor activity. 
  • Dysthymic Disorder (DD) is a chronic, mild form of depression that includes symptoms such as depressed mood, irritability, and two other depressive symptoms.  D
  • Depressive Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (D-NOS) is diagnosed when an individual’s depressive symptoms do not meet the criteria of the previous two disorders.  

Although prevalence rates for depression in children and adolescents vary (18), they seem to fall between 1.6% and 8.9% (2).  With respect to developmental trends, depression rates increase with age and rise dramatically during adolescence (19). Based on the prevalence of depression in youth, it is important to examine depression more thoroughly in the context of bullying.

Depression in Bullies, Victims, and Bully/Victims

Victims of bullying are particularly at-risk for experiencing depression.  Victims have been found to do the following:

  • possess typically low self-esteem view themselves in a negative manner (10 & 11), which can ultimately lead to depression.  
  • are associated with depression and unhappiness at school (14) and low self-worth (3).  

Additionally, bullies and bully-victims may also experience depression. Studies have found the following tendencies in bullies and bully-victims: 

  • had higher levels of depressive symptoms than victims and individuals who were not involved in bullying (17)
  • had comorbid depression with other disorders (e.g., oppositional or conduct disorders for bullies) (8)
  • were the most impaired subgroup of students involved in bullying with respect to mental health issues (17 & 7)

Along with depressive symptomatology, there appears to be a relationship between bullying and suicidal ideation. Findings indicate that individuals who are involved in bullying are at risk for developing depression and suicidal thinking, regardless of their status. Studies, for example, have found the following:

  • A larger proportion of adolescent bully-victims and victims reported suicidal ideation compared to bullies and uninvolved youth (7)
  • Bullies and victims scored significantly higher than uninvolved peers on measures of depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts (12) 
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