The Surprising Link Between Bullying and Substance Abuse

The Surprising Link Between Bullying and Substance Abuse (Blog Banner)

Many children are likely to encounter bullying. A poll taken in 2014 found that over half of school-age children in South Africa have experienced it. Bullying can have a detrimental effect on children as they grow up, and the bully, their victim, and even bystanders can end up having ongoing issues such as those substance abuses later in life. Thankfully, there are steps that can be taken to prevent bullying and the resulting problems with substance abuse that may arise from it.

What is Bullying?

Bullying is defined as persistent, undesirable, aggressive behaviour from one person to another. This behaviour comes along with an element of power imbalance, whether real or perceived. The repetition of the behaviour is one of the key components that results in an action being considered bullying. Bullying behaviours happen multiple times over an extended time period. Bullying also involves a power imbalance. Children who bully others may use their physical strength, social popularity, or access to embarrassing information to create this power imbalance. These power imbalances can change and develop over time between the bully and their victim. Bullying behaviours can include physically harming another, excluding a person from social groups, spreading rumours, or verbally threatening someone. Both the bully and the victim are at risk for lasting mental health issues.

While most bullying tends to take place at school, it can occur in a number of different settings, whether during or after school. Bullying may occur on playgrounds, on the bus to and from school, in the child’s neighbourhood, or even over the internet.

Types of Bullying

There are different types of bullying that can lead to issues with substance abuse, and any given bullying dynamic may involve one or more of these types of abuse. Three forms of bullying are considered to be the most common:

  • Physical bullying: Physical bullying involves harassing a person through physical means, either by harming their body or their personal property. Physical bullying includes acts like hitting, kicking, pushing, tripping, pinching, or spitting on another person. Stealing or destroying a person’s possessions is also considered physical bullying, as is making crude hand gestures towards another person.
  • Verbal bullying: Verbal instances of bullying typically include saying or writing cruel things about another person. Examples of verbal bullying include teasing, calling someone names, taunting or threatening another person, and making inappropriate sexual comments towards an individual.
  • Social bullying: Social bullying, also known as relational bullying, involves taking actions to negatively affect someone’s reputation or relationships with others. Social bullying can involve making someone feel isolated or left out of group activities, telling others not to be friends with a person, purposefully embarrassing another person, or spreading hurtful rumours.

The Effects of Bullying

There are many short and long-term effects of bullying, which the victim, the bully, and even bystanders can suffer from, including a heightened risk of substance abuse problems. These effects vary in severity depending on the situation but can be serious and even life-threatening.

Here are a few of the possible short-term effects of bullying on the individual being bullied:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Lowered sense of self-esteem and self-worth
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Nightmares
  • Feelings of shame
  • Social isolation
  • Avoidance of school or other social events
  • Bedwetting
  • Increased risk of illness
  • Poor performance at school
  • Psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, muscle aches, and other physical symptoms without a known cause
Long-term effects can be even more serious for victims of bullying, and can include:
  • PTSD
  • Substance abuse
  • Trouble forming relationships with others
  • Self-harm
  • Suicidal thoughts and actions
Bullying also presents negative consequences for the perpetrator, including:
  • Poor performance at school
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships with others
  • Risk of truancy
  • Substance abuse
  • Antisocial behaviour
  • Spousal or child abuse later in life

Substance Abuse

Substance abuse, also known as substance use disorder, describes a consistent pattern of substance use over time which causes significant harm to the user, their family and friends, and society. Those who develop substance abuse issues may endanger themselves and others while under the influence and may experience a variety of negative effects as a result of their addiction. As tolerance and dependence on an addictive substance is built, the potential for substance abuse to become life-threatening to an individual increase drastically. 

Effects of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse can potentially affect the substance user both physically and mentally. These negative effects can even become life-threatening over time. Some of the most common short-term effects of substance abuse include:

  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Changes in weight
  • Changes in cognitive ability
  • Slurred speech
  • Changes in coordination
  • Withdrawals during periods of sobriety
  • Poor academic or work performance
  • Problems with law enforcement
  • Social isolation
Long-term effects of substance abuse may include:
  • Alteration of brain function
  • Depression, anxiety, aggression, paranoia, hallucinations
  • Memory and concentration issues
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Respiratory issues
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver disease
  • Potential for overdose

Preventing Instances of Bullying

There are many ways to help prevent instances of bullying among adolescents. The CDC has guidelines on how to help stop bullying in children. Some of the best options when it comes to reducing bullying in areas like South Africa are:

  • Promoting healthy family environments
  • Providing children with quality education early in their development
  • Strengthening the skills of children through school-based anti-bullying programs
  • Connect with children through mentoring and after-school programs
  • Creating safe community environments through outreach programs
  • Intervention to help prevent problem behaviours and violence risks among children

Getting Help for Substance Abuse

Once an addiction has formed, finding help for substance abuse is vital in order to lead a healthy, sober life. Professionals at rehabilitation programs and treatment centres in South Africa can help those dealing with substance abuse find sobriety and address the various causes of substance abuse, such as experiencing bullying during one’s childhood.


Credit: Andrea Poteet-Bell – Sunshine Behavioral Health

Read last month’s MOT Coach Blogger of the Month by Tatenda Pakai here, where she shares how she first heard about MOT, her experience at the MOT Coaches’ Basic Education and how excited she is to start using the MOT tools and skills learned!

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