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Updated 01/18/2023

Group of young girls conversing behind the woman with a sad expression

It is not hard to see how someone can be tempted toward substance abuse when he or she is pushed around, physically attacked, and ridiculed or humiliated by one or more peers–in other words, when bullying occurs. Substance abuse can be an escape from the unpleasant circumstances of life or a way to lessen the pain brought on by bullying.

An Unexpected Correlation

When researchers studied the connection between bullying and substance abuse, however, their findings were somewhat unexpected. While substance abuse did correlate to bullying, it was the bullies themselves who were more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, not the victims, according to one study.

At least, not those who were only victims. One subset of victims was the most likely to engage in substance abuse, but those were what researchers called victim-bullies, kids who were both victims of bullying and also bullies themselves.

In the study of 75,000 youth, 31.7 percent of  high schoolers who bullied others also used marijuana, while only 13.3 percent of those not involved in bullying did so. Similar numbers were seen for both alcohol and cigarettes. Among middle schoolers, who had much lower rates of substance abuse but higher rates of bullying, only 1.6 percent of those not involved in bullying used marijuana, while 11.4 percent of the bullies did.

Why Bullying is Correlated with Substance Abuse

Ohio State University conducted the study, and the results were published in the journal Addictive Behaviors. It is not so much that bullying causes substance abuse, though in the case of victim-bullies, the link is somewhat less clear.

“Our findings suggest that one deviant behavior may be related to another,” lead author Kisha Radliff of Ohio State University said in a news release. “For example, youth who bully others might be more likely to also try substance use. The reverse could also be true in that youth who use substances might be more likely to bully others.”

About 20 percent of students in middle and high school are bullied, which is an ongoing physical or psychological aggression against the child by someone perceived to be more powerful in some way–maybe older, bigger, or more popular than the victim.

Although there is a perceived power imbalance that always goes along with bullying, it is important to remember that most bullies are insecure and may have poor self-esteem even as they act arrogantly and are mean toward others. While in some cases standing up for themselves is a positive step for students to take to overcome bullying, students who are both victims and bullies are six times more likely to suffer all kinds of problems as adults, including substance abuse.

“Many schools are mandating anti-bullying programs and policies, and we think they need to take this opportunity to address other forms of deviant behavior, such as substance use,” Radliff said. “If we can intervene with bullies while they’re in middle school, we may be able to help them before they start experimenting with substance use.”

If your adolescent struggles with substance abuse, The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake has resources to help them get to a place of recovery. Contact us to discuss treatment options.

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