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Bullies Risk Developing Mental Illnesses That Further Fuel Their Bullying

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Dec 30, 2019

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(Image source: Stock image)

We all know bullies are awful because exactly zero people are fans of unnecessary violence aimed at themselves. Nobody wants Nate from Euphoria or Regina George from Mean Girls in their lives, or in any other lifetime.

Yet, the psyche of a bully merits studying, both to understand what pleasure is derived from intimidating others, and in an attempt to put a stop to the practice. The latest in such inquiry comes from Columbia University, where researchers discovered that bullying others increases the probability of the bully developing mental health problems, and these can further fuel their need to bully. Published in The Journal of Adolescent Health, the study arrived at its findings by analyzing the data of more than 13,000 individuals aged 12-17 in the U.S-based Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health survey.

“While it is well documented that bullying victimization is associated with immediate and life-long mental health problems, no studies to date have examined the hypothesis that the relationship between bullying perpetration and mental health problems may be bidirectional,” Marine Azevedo Da Silva, study author and postdoctoral researcher at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, said in a statement.


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Bullying is a direct result of a culture fetishizing power and social capital, via the rejection of vulnerability and of people who do not conform to social norms. A bully’s method of securing power is to seek out such vulnerabilities, deem them as weaknesses and to rain violence upon those who are weak in such ways.”Socially dominant bullies want to be the leader of the crowd,” Dorothy Espelage, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hil, told BBC. “And the way that they do that is to push kids down the hierarchy.”

According to the teenagers’ data, 79% reported they’d never bullied others while 11% had bullied others over a year ago, and 10% had bullied others in the past year. Researchers found that those who bullied others were highly likely to internalize their problems, which led to a moderate-to-high incidence of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, psychological distress, psychosomatic symptoms, and suicidal behaviors.

They also found that adolescents who internalized their problems had an increased risk of bullying others.

“The study we designed allowed us to show that the association is likely to be bidirectional between bullying perpetration and internalizing problems. However, it is important to point out that the methods of assessment — including definitions, question-wording, and self-report — could overestimate or underestimate the prevalence of bullying and in turn, influence the strength of association between bullying perpetration and internalizing problems,” added Da Silva.

However, this study does help draw out a more significant portrait of a perpetrator of violence like bullying, much unlike the caricature portraits of playground bullies we’ve all grown up with. Just as there’s hope for those who survive being bullied, there might be hope for those who feel the need to inflict it upon others.

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is the senior culture writer at The Swaddle, with an interest in cultural analysis, environment, and the science of mental health.  Write to her using aditi@theswaddle.com, or find her on social media @aditimurti.

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