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The Psychological Impact of Bullying: Shame, Humiliation and Trauma

Many of us in the United Kingdom and wider were appalled this week by the shocking news and video evidence of two teenage girls being mercilessly set upon and bullied by an older girl as they walked home in the Northfield district of Birmingham on Saturday night. The video, which has gone viral, contains distressing footage of a reality which we face in society today. Unfortunately, this is a stomach-churning and alarming reality.

As tensions rise and individuals feel a deep sense of injustice toward the perpetrators of bullying, it is only natural that retribution be sought. This is indeed what has happened. The perpetrator’s name, address and telephone number were allegedly posted on social media and death threats issued. Amidst the anger, chaos and confusion lies the question of “What about the victims?”

Personally, the incident evokes memories of the sickening Edlington attacks in 2009 in South Yorkshire where two boys, aged 11 and 9, were subject to 90 minutes of barbaric torture, abuse and degradation by perpetrators aged only 10 and 11 themselves. Tensions ran high. People wanted retribution. What about the victims? How are the boys now?

The reality is that bullying in its various guises is more common than we often anticipate. It covers a wide spectrum of mistreatment spanning interpersonal victimisation, abuse and condemnation. Bullying can occur in childhood or in adulthood. It takes place in schools, homes, workplaces and now across cyber-space. Bullying can occur in the form of one-off assaults, serial occurrences of victimisation or veiled threats, emotional abuse and the process being ignored in the workplace, the home or in the classroom.

The experience of bullying is so all-encompassing and wide-ranging that it is not surprising that the psychological impact can be widespread. Many adult survivors of childhood bullying suffer from low self-esteem and overwhelming feelings of shame. They may themselves become their own internal bullies by relentlessly criticising and attacking themselves. Others may suffer social anxiety fearing condemnation, criticism or victimisation in social situations. Many other individuals struggle to deal with unprocessed memories of fear, humiliation and degradation. Many go on to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and continue to do so, untreated and unsupported, for many years and perhaps indefinitely. In extreme cases, the cumulative experience of childhood bullying may lead to psychotic experiences such as ongoing persecutory beliefs and distressing hallucinatory experiences. This makes sense when we consider that bullying is essentially a form of persecution and that the experience of it can lead to painful emotions and memories that the individual simply does not wish to face again.

Bullying therefore is a traumatic experience and its effects can be wide-ranging and deep-rooted. Often, victims can go many years before they are supported (or choose themselves) to seek help, to develop healthy ways of coping and to face the traumatic memories in a way that is helpful and healing. Some continue to suffer indefinitely and in silence. Not surprisingly, the process of remembering, reliving and emotionally reclaiming oneself can be a painful one. However, it can be one that can ultimately bring about relief and recovery with time, care, empathy and compassion.

In our haste to seek retribution toward the perpetrators of bullying, let us stop also to consider and empathise with the victims, children and adults alike. Let us think about what we can do proactively to make a difference in society. How can we ourselves make a change?

Societal and community-based projects which offer support to victims and their families are welcome initiatives. In addition, movements which seek to facilitate awareness of bullying and the importance of whistle-blowing (e.g. in schools, workplaces, clubs, organisations and institution) are pivotal to change. Beyond this, increasing access to evidence-based psychological therapies and counselling for victims of bullying (whether of child or adult age) should be a high priority across society.