When you think about bullying, you probably think about a bully and victim. There are mental health implications of both of those roles. Victims have higher rates of mental health difficulties, such as depression and anxiety, while perpetrators have low levels of school engagement and high levels of delinquent behaviour outside school. When students are both bullies and victims, physical complaints are common, and there may be other psychiatric problems. But even though the bullies and the victims are the primary people involved, there also witnesses to bullying behaviour who may have difficulties as well. It first occurred to me that witnesses to bullying might also have some trouble after looking at a book by Barbara Coloroso called “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School“. Coloroso is a clinician, but there’s research to back up her idea that bystanders also suffer from witnessing bullying.
Ian Rivers and his colleagues examined the mental health implications of bullying in a study published in a recent issue of School Psychology Quarterly. They surveyed over 2000 students aged 12 to 16 in several schools in the U.K. about mental health and substance use. Many of the students in their sample reported involvement in bullying; 20% were perpetrators, 34% were victims, and 63% were witnesses; the numbers add up to more than 100% because some youth fit into more than one category. Interestingly, Rivers and his colleagues found that bullies were more likely than other youth to report substance use, but so were witnesses. Bullies also noted increased hostility and interpersonal sensitivity. Victims of bullying experienced a range of difficulties, including anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, depressive symptoms, interpersonal sensitivity, and paranoia. Witnesses experienced elevations in almost all of these areas. In fact, witnessing bullying was linked to mental health concerns (anxiety, paranoia, interpersonal sensitivity) over and above those predicted by also being a bully or a victim; that is, bullies and victims who were also witnesses had more difficulties than other participants in the study. Rivers thought that witnesses might be at risk because seeing others being victimized might be traumatic, or they might be more worried that they, too, will become targets of a bully. Their most interesting theory was the notion that bystanders are stressed by wanting to help but doing nothing.
What does all this mean for parents? First, if your child is often a bystander when bullying is occurring, you might want to be alert to potential difficulties arising from being a witness. If you notice changes in behaviour, sleep, or appetite, these might be indicators that something is the matter. Reluctance or refusal to go to school could also suggest that there are problems. Talk to your child about what’s happening at school, and get professional help if necessary.
One of my concerns is that bullies and their victims tend to be visible to parents and school staff. They often receive support, or programs are put in place to address the problem, but witnesses may be invisible victims at your child’s school. It’s important for school staff to be aware of the potential impact of being a witness to violence. Rivers thought that shifting from an “outsider” role to becoming a “defender” who engages in behaviour to counter bullying might reduce the risk for witnesses.
Here’s a link to Coloroso’s book:
Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.