The Power of Prevention: Reducing Depression in Adolescents through Bullying

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A guest post by Dr. Alex Chevalier, Medical Director of SunCloud Health’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Programs. 

October is recognized as both National Depression and Mental Health Screening Month and National Bullying Prevention Month. While these awareness month themes may seem unrelated, correlations can be found when treating depression in adolescents, specifically on how bullying can have a severe effect on one’s overall mental health. In serious cases, bullying contributes to young people’s loss of self-esteem and anxiety and can lead to eating disorders and depression. October, therefore, is the perfect time to destigmatize mental health struggles like depression and promote effective care, as well as spread awareness of the effects of bullying and prevent bullying altogether. 

What Is Bullying? 

“Bullying” consists of several forms of behaviors often lumped together under one umbrella term. There is bullying we typically think of, like name-calling or insulting someone’s family, appearance, or abilities. There is also bullying via encouraging social estrangement, where a number of peers coordinate the ghosting of a student.  

Often, adolescents refer to physical and/or sexual assault as bullying. This is assault and should be called such, as it can lead to expected resulting conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder in some instances.   

Here, we will focus on more standardized forms of bullying, while noting that any instances of assault should be taken seriously and reported to proper authorities.  

How Bullying Affects Teens’ Mental Health 

Consistent bullying can negatively impact the mental health of any individual, but it especially affects adolescents who are still growing, developing, and searching for belonging. A young person who faces bullying daily may even suffer serious emotional trauma from their experience. It’s no surprise, then, that many teens develop negative coping mechanisms when being bullied, given the feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, frustration, and anxiousness that arise. These negative coping mechanisms can grow into long-lasting harmful habits, such as substance use, which can affect the overall well-being of your teen now and into their future.  

There can be many causes of depression, eating disorders, substance use disorders, anxiety, and other mental health concerns in adolescents, but bullying and a lack of social acceptance are often named as primary factors. In fact, bullying is directly tied to significant mental health disorders in around 1/3 of cases among the patients treated at SunCloud Health. Another 1/3 have negative peer interactions in which they may have played a role in causing and were not unidirectional bullying. Patients with positive peer relationships are typically the minority. 

Unfortunately, bullying is a behavior as old as time, which leads to a risk of parents thinking what their child is going through is similar to their experience. It’s imperative that parents learn and accept that today’s bullying is unlike their own experiences. With the advent of nearly every student having a social media presence, bullying has shifted from a school-based activity to one in which students risk virtual bullying that can occur 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There are few actions that would lead to a worse outcome for an adolescent, than being on a phone scrolling social media late at night, and seeing bullying posts directed toward them.   

Media and medical groups have certainly raised the alarm about the critical concerns around bullying throughout the United States over the past few decades. While some neighborhoods and school environments may be worse than others, in 2022, the CDC found that 1 in 5 high school students reported experiencing bullying at school, while 33% of middle school students reported being bullied online.  

No matter the level of bullying taking place, such treatment causes low self-esteem, anxiety, social anxiety, substance use, and depression to be common outcomes for those who are the target. Studies have shown that children and adolescents who are subject to bullying are almost three times more at risk for depression.  

Importance of Social Acceptance for Adolescents 

As adults, it is difficult to understand how crucial social acceptance can be for our teens, as in our adult experience, it’s less unnerving if we come across someone who doesn’t like us. However, for a teen, social acceptance is imperative to their success. 

Adolescents are going through the critical developmental stage of separation and individualization as they develop their own personality as separate from a member of their family. This process sees a natural pull away from parents/guardians and toward peers who help teenagers identify in themselves what they see in others. Natural development into an adult brain is beginning (and will not finish until the 20s) during this time and is part of the reason peer pressure is amplified during this stage in life.  

Peer acceptance, therefore, can directly influence a teen’s development of social functioning, academic achievements, and overall self-esteem. Social bonds during adolescence play an integral role in a teen’s self-worth and belonging and can result in them losing their sense of self and overall passion for life without these essential elements. 

Signs Your Child May Be Experiencing Bullying 

It may be difficult to know if your child is being bullied if they don’t talk about it with you. The following are some warning signs to pay attention to:  

  • Decline of academic performance  
  • Uncommon behavioral issues at school or fear of attending school  
  • Unexplained physical marks, like scratches or bruises on their arms or legs 
  • Feelings of worthlessness  
  • Difficulty making or maintaining friends  
  • Unusual loss of interest in their favorite activities 
  • Difficulty sleeping  

What Parents Can Do 

If you notice any of the symptoms or suspect bullying, it’s time to take action. Having an open and honest dialogue is the first priority. It’s never easy to open up about negative actions directed toward oneself, and many victims of bullying feel significant shame. Make sure your child knows you are available for anything/everything that may come along the way in addressing the concerns.  If you can identify that bullying is occurring, one important step is to keep concrete evidence of it occurring (e.g. screenshots, pictures, real-time journal entries of events).   

As a parent, navigating so many new things with your child, the best things you can do are: 

  • Be informed about bullying and its effects. 
  • Be aware of your teen’s well-being and their school environment. 
  • Be proactive in having conversations with your teen about the social climate at school and how their peers treat others at school and online.  
  • Be diligent in monitoring your teen’s messaging and social media activities to protect them from cyberbullying and enforce them to refrain from cyberbullying others.  
  • Ensure your teen knows they have your support. 

How to Discuss Bullying with Your Teen 

When discussing bullying and other social matters with your teen it is important to emphasize how, as a parent, you care and are not striving to be “nosy” or to “be in your teen’s business” but you are simply trying to ensure the safety and wellbeing of your teen. Gently remind them that your role as a parent requires you to protect them and provide environments in which they can thrive. If you have suspicions of your teen being bullied, approach the subject calmly with care and concern at the forefront of your conversation. Remind your teen that they can come to you about important information that could potentially affect their safety and well-being, whether it be online or on campus at school. Stress that getting bullied is not your teen’s fault and assure them that any negative comments made toward them are not true.  

A few other important talking points may be:  

  • Discuss boundaries in-person and online and encourage your teen to stand up for themselves and others in both arenas.  
  • Promote positive interactions. Encourage an atmosphere of kindness to be adopted at their school and for them personally with all the peers they encounter. Adversely if a peer is not being kind- teach your teen to combat it, or when to notify an adult. 
  • Remind your teen that their own insecurities are no reason to pick on someone else. Bullying prevention includes preventing our loved ones from becoming the bully.  

While it is crucial to communicate all of these items with your teen, be sure to listen to them as well. Give your full attention to them, empathize with them, and try to gain an understanding of the details of any specific bullying incidents.  

If your teen is too embarrassed to talk to you, encourage them to talk with a trusted mental health professional, another trusted family member, or an adult mentor in their life. Coaches, godparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, guidance counselors, and friends may be great individuals to connect with about these issues. As a parent, reaching out to these trusted figures may be a great way for them to be aware of your teen’s struggles and ease into a conversation with your teen outside of the home.  

Remember to explain your goal of helping your child and supporting them regardless of the events that have unfolded and offer to keep confidential any elements your child wishes.  

When to Reach Out for External Help 

If you are worried about specific instances of bullying, or your son or daughter has confided in you about bullying at school, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s teacher, school administrators, and guidance counselors. You can do so in a confidential way, to avoid further embarrassment for your child by the situation. If possible, determine who the bully is and work with the school’s staff toward a positive change. It’s likely that your student is not the only target of the bully, and reporting the issue could help other families in a similar position.  

If your child is being bullied online or is experiencing unsolicited hate comments from peers, help them to set online boundaries for themselves. Don’t hesitate to limit their social media use to protect them if things get out of hand.  

It’s also wise to instruct your teen to write down the details of any incidents of bullying happening in real-time, or at the end of the day, to keep a record of the case. Instruct your child to take screenshots of any hate comments, or suspected cyberbullying, especially in iPhone messages or in an app like Snapchat or Instagram direct messages, as oftentimes there are settings where the messaging can be erased or deleted after being sent. These written records and screenshots may prove to be useful when you address the issue with school staff; they will prove the incidents to be true and will aid school staff in assigning disciplinary action or involving law enforcement if necessary.  

Above all, make sure your child knows that if these events keep occurring, you will not stop until you have exhausted all available options as a parent. Bullies thrive by making kids feel alone and powerless; you as the parent are there to make them feel supported and capable.  

Preventing Youth from Becoming Bullies  

On the flip side of the bullying coin, many parents worry their child may become the bully at some point in their youth, and wonder how to prevent this from happening. It’s important to remember that children learn largely by observation. As such, teachings like “do what I say, not what I do” is an ineffective parenting method.   

Instead, show your child your personal willingness to care for others, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Keep negative comments about others to yourself or away from your child’s earshot. Place them in situations where they can help those less fortunate than themselves, and therefore grow and develop with such community-focused learnings in place.   

SunCloud Health Is Here for You 

While the reality of bullying being a prominent issue for our youth may be disheartening, remember, we can all do our part to prevent bullying and offset its effects this month and into the future. Spreading awareness is the first step, followed by creating a positive and accepting environment at home and at school by partnering with school staff and having meaningful conversations with our families.  

If your teen has experienced bullying, is struggling to cope with bullying, or you are concerned for their mental health, we are here to help. SunCloud Health providers are dedicated to guiding your teen through tough times and tailoring treatment for their individual needs. This treatment may include PHP and IOP programs where adolescents can address root causes of their mental health disorders in a recovery community environment. We are pleased to offer this integrative treatment option for adolescents struggling with substance use disorders, trauma, eating disorders, mood disorders, and co-occurring anxiety disorders.   

For more information, visit our website here:  

About Dr. Alex Chevalier 

Dr. Alex Chevalier is the Medical Director of SunCloud Health’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Programs, overseeing all aspects of adolescent care at SunCloud’s Northbrook, Naperville, and Chicago locations, as well as directly treating adolescent clients at the Northbrook center. He is a board-certified adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist who completed his medical training at the University of Wisconsin, followed by adult residency and child/adolescent fellowship at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Treatment expertise includes a wide variety of psychiatric disorders, such as mood, anxiety, substance use, and neurodevelopmental, and a particular focus in the area of childhood trauma, teen depression treatment, and post-traumatic stress. 

Dr. Chevalier has worked with countless adolescents and their families in addressing and overcoming the mental health struggles present in adolescents’ lives due to the effects of bullying. He states, “One of my greatest joys is seeing the transformation that can occur for adolescents over the course of a cycle of care. Having worked in inpatient units where stabilization is prioritized over recovery and then in the outpatient setting where treatment is a slow-moving wheel, PHP/IOP treatment offers a real chance for adolescents to face their mental health concerns in a supportive environment and make durable changes to set themselves up to thrive.”