Bullying and Substance Abuse: A Guide for High School Counselors

Tragic acts of violence or desperation have raised awareness about the impacts of teen bullying, but other side effects of the behavior receive less attention. Victims of bullying don’t always bring weapons to school or consider suicide. They may turn to other outlets to try to escape negative emotions.

Some students turn to alcohol or other drugs to cope with negative emotions caused by bullying. Risk factors for substance abuse and bullying often overlap, according to a 2010 literature review published in School Psychology Quarterly.

Risk factors for bullying include:

  • Being overweight or underweight
  • Being a new student
  • Having lower socio-economic status
  • Identifying as LGBTQ+
  • Having a disability
  • Having mental health issues

Several of those risk factors are also risk factors for early initiation of alcohol or drug use. Thus, it’s not surprising that victims of bullying are more likely than the general population to use alcohol or other drugs. However, they aren’t the only ones at risk for substance abuse. Several studies indicate that bullies are more likely than victims to use alcohol or other drugs.

Teens usually bully others to gain or maintain social status. But they aren’t always the most popular students. Bullies often suffer from depression, anxiety, low self-esteem or other mental health issues. Researchers believe they may act out to cope with their negative feelings, but the act of bullying often causes negative side effects for victims and bullies.

Pre-existing mental health problems may worsen. When teens turn to alcohol or other drugs, the substances exacerbate the symptoms of mental health problems.

Side effects of bullying include:

  • Substance use
  • Sleep problems
  • Eating disorders
  • Attendance issues
  • Academic difficulties
  • Conduct problems

The best way to prevent bullying is to keep an eye on students, but teachers and staff can’t be everywhere. Teen bullying often occurs in locations away from adults, such as playgrounds, locker rooms, school buses or on the way to or from school.

Types of bullying include verbal assaults, such as name-calling, teasing or threatening. Bullying also includes social acts, such as spreading rumors, making up fake stories or purposefully excluding someone from an activity. Physical bullying includes pinching, spitting and fighting.

Bullying can also occur online. Cyberbullying refers to spreading rumors, shaming or making fun of others via social media, text messages, emails or other electronic outlets.

To prevent bullying, educators should fix the problem at the source. Bullies often possess mental health problems. They are less likely to have parents who are involved in their lives. They often have low self-esteem or feel isolated.

Identifying bullies and connecting them with mental health resources can teach these students healthy ways to cope. Reaching out to parents to address the problem may be effective. If parents are unwilling to act, it may be beneficial to connect the teen with a role model.

Some bullies may be deterred by negative consequences such as detention or suspension. But if they’re acting out because of emotional issues, counseling and therapy may be more appropriate.

Educators can’t prevent bullying or identify bullies who need help if they aren’t aware that bullying is present. Thus, they should make students aware of resource for victims of bullying. If victims are encouraged to speak up, they can access resources they need and help educators identify others who need help.

Chris Elkins is a senior health writer for DrugRehab.com. He writes about people in recovery from addiction, substance abuse trends and the latest research on the disease of addiction. He can be reached via e-mail at celkins@drugrehab.com.



Connell, N.M., Morrie, R.G. & Piquero, A.R. (2015, October 22). Exploring the Link between Being Bullied and Adolescent Substance Use. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15564886.2015.1055416

Cook, C.R. et al. (2010). Predictors of Bullying and Victimization in Childhood and Adolescence: A Meta-analytic Investigation. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/spq-25-2-65.pdf

Durand, V. et al. (2013). Bullying and Substance Use in Children and Adolescents. Retrieved from https://www.omicsonline.org/bullying-and-substance-use-in-children-and-adolescents-2155-6105.1000158.pdf