Updated 27 January 2015

Both bullies and victims at higher risk of suicide

The highest odds for suicide are among bullied people who were also bullies themselves, a new study finds.


A new analysis of research from around the world suggests that kids involved in bullying are at higher risk of suicidal thoughts and actions.

Kids who bullied others and were victims themselves were the most troubled of all, the report found.

Bullying impacts mental health

"Our study highlights the significant impact bullying involvement can have on mental health for some youth," said study lead author Melissa Holt, an assistant professor of counselling psychology at Boston University.

Researchers already know that there's a connection between bullying – being a victim, a bully, or both at different times – and suicidal thoughts, said Robert Faris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, who studies bullying.

It's also clear that the link is stronger for the victims of bullying, he said.

Read: Warning signs of suicide

However, "we also know that bullying alone does not directly cause suicide," he said, and it's not clear "how we get from being bullied to suicide."

Holt also stressed that although the study found an association, it couldn't prove cause and effect.

"Involvement in bullying, as a victim or perpetrator, is not by random assignment, so it's possible that the factors that lead kids to bully or be victimized also lead them to consider suicide," Faris reasoned.

In the new report, researchers tried to get a global handle on the potential risks of bullying. To do so, they analysed 47 studies of bullying from around the world, including 18 from the United States.

More suicidal thoughts

"Victims, bullies, and those youth who both bully others and are bullied all report significantly more suicidal thoughts and behaviours than youth who are uninvolved in bullying," study lead author Holt said.

The analysis suggests that those who are bullies and bullied themselves are at greatest risk of having suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

According to the study, prior research has suggested that so-called "bully victims" – kids who fall into both categories of bully and victim – are often more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety compared to bullies and victims of bullying.

Read: Guns and suicide

In the new analysis, these "bully victims" had four times the odds of suicidal thoughts and behaviours, compared to those who weren't exposed to bullying.

Victims (only) of bullying had odds for suicidal thoughts and behaviours that were more than twice that of people not bullied, and rates were similar for people who were bully perpetrators only.

Why might bullies be suicidal in the first place?

"Some bullies are emotionally and psychologically maladjusted, and these are risks for suicidal thoughts," Faris said.

"But on top of that, bullying has the potential to cause a lot of distress for bullies, either because their bullying has backfired, or because it is distressing to be feared, avoided or hated."

Read: Abortion ban drives pregnant teens to suicide

As for the report itself, Faris said it's "definitely valid". And, he added, it supports "the link between involvement in bullying and suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Hopefully, scholars can put that basic question to bed now."

The analysis appears in the journal Paediatrics.

Read More:

The link between sleep and suicide
Depression and suicide rates soar in spring
Brain abnormalities tied to teen suicide risk

Image: Teenage male holding handgun from Shutterstock.

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Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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