Bullying - Mental Health

Tips by Theme or Topic

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  1. Prevalence of bullying
    1. 1 in 5 young people will experience bullying, most often in the form of verbal insults, name-calling, or being the subject of rumors or lies. Experiencing bullying puts young people at increased risk for mental health challenges.
  2. Increased risk
    1. Individuals who observe mistreatment are also at increased risk for mental health challenges. Those who both perpetuate and experience bullying behaviors are at the highest risk.
  3. Focus on solutions
    1. Storytelling can help reduce the negative impact of bullying by illuminating the root causes and focusing on solutions.

Storytelling Tips

Move Past Stereotypes
  • Tell a variety of stories about bullying that represent different genders, ethnicities and types of students. Common stereotypes about bullying include the “mean girl” or the “alpha male athlete” who bullies “less popular” kids. Storytelling can show the reality that bullying affects people of all backgrounds and can be a mental health concern for anyone.
Show Conversations About Mental Health and Help-Seeking
  • Depict people involved in the bullying cycle (those who bully, those who are bullied, and those who witness the bullying) talking about how the situation makes them feel, how it impacts other challenges they are facing, and how they can improve their situation (even if they can’t stop the bullying behaviors completely). The shame around being bullied and/or observing bullying can prevent open conversation about the topic. Storytelling can break that silence and encourage people to reach out for emotional support.
Spotlight Support from Friends and Family
  • Highlight the different ways friends and family can be supportive. Peers may feel that intervening in bullying while it’s happening may put them at risk of being mistreated or harmed. Storytelling can show viewers that there are other ways peers canhelp, like telling a parent or teacher what is happening, or just being kinder and more accepting in general toward the person who is being bullied.
Depict Effective, Realistic Help-Seeking and Treatment
  • Show the importance of seeking mental health support if someone is struggling emotionally due to bullying. Storytelling can highlight how addressing underlying challenges and strengthening mental health can reduce the long-term impact of mistreatment and bullying. 
Represent the Complex Causes of Mental Health Challenges
  • Avoid presenting bullying as the sole cause of emotional distress or suicide. Painting a more realistic picture of all the factors that contribute to mental health struggles can help audience members who are dealing with bullying better address underlying issues in themselves or loved ones. 
  • Illustrate how mental health struggles or traumatic experiences can make it more likely for a young person to bully others. Storylines that provide context for bullying, without justifying the behavior, can help viewers better understand how to support young people who might be dealing with similar emotional struggles and negative behaviors. 
  • Spotlight how existing mental health struggles influence the way young people perceive and cope with bullying. If a young person is already struggling emotionally and feeling bad about themselves, they are more likely to think people are talking about and judging them. Their mental health is also more likely to be negatively impacted by these actions. Storytelling can illuminate the root causes that lead someone from bullying to experiencing emotional distress and can demonstrate why it’s important to support people with existing struggles.
Avoid Sharing Potentially Harmful Details
  • Don’t inadvertently portray suicide as a solution to bullying. While it’s best to avoid making a connection between bullying and suicide altogether, if both of those themes exist in your storyline, avoid implying that suicide is a solution for getting back at individuals who haven’t intervened. Young people may not fully grasp the finality of death and might see suicide as an effective way to stop the cycle.
  • Limit depictions of physical abuse. Bullying can lead to trauma that can impact overall long-term mental health. Watching depictions of severe, violent bullying behaviors could be triggering for individuals coping with this type of trauma. It’s recommended to only include depictions of graphic incidents of bullying when the storyline requires it, and consult with an advisor to ensure the scenes are safe for audiences. 
Consider the Impact of Language
  • Avoid explicitly referring to cast members or characters as bullies, bystanders, or victims to prevent associating negative behaviors or harmful experience’s with people’s identities. 


1 in 5 young people will experience bullying. Youth with physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities, or learning differences are at higher risk of experiencing bullying, as are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender youth. In recent years, people of color have experienced an increase in bullying, harassment, and violence, as a result of exclusionary policies and rhetoric, such as the Muslim ban, the scapegoating of AAPI communities during COVID, and harassment of immigrant, Latinx, and Black communities.

Between the ages of 12 and 18, young people experience bullying in several forms. The most common ways they are bullied include being the subject of rumors or lies; being insulted or called names; being pushed, shoved or tripped; being left out or excluded; and being threatened with physical harm.

Cyberbullying also continues to be prevalent and problematic, with 15% of students who report being bullied noting that it happened online or by text. Cyberbullying is especially concerning because it can be long-term, persistent, and so discreet that it’s invisible. It’s worth noting that young people who experience cyberbullying typically also experience in-person bullying. 

Young people who experience bullying are at increased risk for mental health challenges, and research shows that persistent bullying can lead to or worsen feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion, and despair, as well as depression and anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior.

It can be counterproductive to refer to people as “bullies, bystanders, or victims,” since many young people float between these roles depending on the moment or group. Young people who bully others, as well as witnesses to this behavior, are also at increased risk for mental health challenges. Even youth who have observed but not participated in bullying behavior report significantly more feelings of helplessness and a lower sense of connectedness, compared to youth who have not witnessed bullying behavior. Youth who report both being bullied and bullying others have the highest rates of negative mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and thinking about suicide. 

While the connection between bullying and suicide is important to acknowledge, overemphasizing this connection can be harmful. Adolescents and teens who are bullied are at increased risk of suicide, but bullying alone is not the cause and the great majority of young people who are bullied do not have thoughts of suicide or attempt suicide. Many factors contribute to suicide risk, including biology, depression, problems at home, and past trauma. Oversimplifying the connection between bullying and suicide could lead people to believe that stopping or preventing bullying behaviors will resolve the situation for a young person who is suicidal. In reality, suicidal behavior after being mistreated is generally a sign of a larger set of underlying issues that need to be addressed and treated.  

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more in part 6