The Bystanders Burden: Mental Health Effects of Bullying
Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen someone mistreat someone else. Raise your hand if you stood by and watched. So that you know… I have both my hands raised. Bullying impacts everyone – the bully, the victim, the bystanders. Today, Racing for Mental Health will share the mental toll bullying takes on bystanders and what to do about it.
The Power of Silence
People who see bullying hold a unique position in the cycle of mistreatment. They are neither the tormentor nor the tormented, yet their actions, or lack thereof, carry significant weight. I’ve been a silent bystander. Chances are, you might have been one too.
Within this silence, a bystander can experience several mental health consequences:
Guilt and Self-Blame
Guilt is one of the biggest emotions experienced by bystanders. It’s the nagging feeling that we could have done something to prevent someone else’s pain. In many cases, bystanders witness bullying with a sense of powerlessness, inability to step in, or unsure how to do so safely.
The guilt we carry can be overwhelming. We might replay the bullying situation, wondering what we could have done differently. This self-blame can persist long after the incident is over, leading to feelings of sadness and regret.
Moreover, the guilt we experience can lead to a sense of moral responsibility. We may struggle with questions like, “Am I a bad person for not helping?” or “Could I have made a difference?” This moral dilemma can add to the emotional struggle.
Moral Dilemmas: Struggling with Right and Wrong
Bystanders are not just passive observers. We become morally invested in the situation. Watching someone mistreat another person will cause us to question our internal moral compass. We feel torn between the desire to do what is right and the fear of becoming a victim ourselves.
These moral dilemmas can be mentally exhausting. Bystanders feel caught between conflicting values – the urge to protect, the desire to stop harm, and the need to keep ourselves safe.
Fear of Retaliation: A Silent Threat
Fear is another powerful emotion that keeps bystanders silent. We often know that standing up to a bully or reporting the incident results in backlash. Bullies, by nature, tend to target those they see as weak. When we say something, we make ourselves vulnerable.
The fear of becoming the next target can paralyze us. Our fear can extend beyond the initial incident. We often worry about potential future repercussions. As a result, silence is comfortable. Silence may not protect others, but at least it can save us. This can encourage feelings of helplessness.
The Hidden Scars: Lingering Mental Effects
The mental impact on bystanders doesn’t just happen when they see bullying. It can have long-lasting impacts that can last a lifetime. There are several ways witnessing bullying impacts long-term mental health:
Impact on Future Relationships
Lower self-esteem and unresolved guilt can affect the way bystanders approach future relationships. This can impact personal and professional relationships. We may struggle with assertiveness and find it hard to build trust.
Recurring Bystander Patterns
Bystanders who do not receive support or intervention can continue to react similarly to situations where bullying is present. We will continue to feel powerless to stop it. This continues the pattern of emotional trauma.
Chronic Anxiety and Stress
The guilt, fear, and moral dilemmas experienced during and after witnessing bullying can lead to chronic anxiety and stress. We may constantly worry about what will happen because of what we did or didn’t do.
In addition, anxiety can show up as a steady sense of unease, fear, or dread. These emotions can affect our lives, including academic or professional performance, personal relationships, and overall mental health. Dealing with long-term stress can cause physical health problems, including sleep disturbances and poor immune function.
The feelings of powerlessness and self-blame experienced by bystanders can significantly impact self-esteem. We may begin to see ourselves as passive or weak people who fail to make a difference.
This low self-esteem can have far-reaching consequences. It may affect self-worth and the ability to assert ourselves in other areas. It can impact self-confidence, making it difficult for us to have healthy social interactions and relationships.
We may develop avoidance behaviors to cope with guilt, anxiety, and fear. We may actively avoid situations or places where bullying occurs or where we think we may experience confrontation.
These avoidance behaviors can lead to social isolation and exclusion. We may withdraw from going to social or work events and school activities.
Breaking the Silence: Empowering Voices
Helping bystanders take action is essential in creating a no-bullying culture. Empowering bystanders is not just about encouraging intervention. It’s about creating a culture where speaking out against bullying is the norm rather than the exception. Different strategies give a lifeline to those who witness bullying and provide hope for a more empathetic and accountable society.
Promote Bystander Intervention Programs
Schools, workplaces, and communities can build bystander intervention programs that empower people to take action when witnessing bullying. These programs offer strategies and guidance on how to intervene safely and effectively.
Lead by Example
Adults, teachers, and authority figures should model bystander intervention behavior. When bystanders see responsible adults standing up against bullying, they are more likely to stand up, too.
Emphasize Anonymous Reporting
Create a safe and anonymous reporting system to lessen the fear of retaliation. Bystanders can use these systems to report bullying incidents without fear of retribution, making it easier for everyone to step forward.
Educate on the Impact of Inaction
Raise awareness about the consequences of bystander inaction. By sharing stories and data on how silence helps bullying continue, bystanders can better understand our role in this cycle.
Encourage Peer Support
Schools and organizations can establish peer support groups. Peer support groups should be safe places where everyone can share their experiences. This is a space to get advice to deal with similar situations in the future.
Mental Health Education
Make mental health education a regular part of everyone’s education. Encourage mental health education to become commonplace at work, school, and home. Education helps everyone understand the mental impacts of bullying and how to find support.
Use healing practices in school, at home, and in the workplace. A healing practice helps repair the harm caused by bullying. It also creates an opportunity for bystanders to help with the healing process, healing others and healing themselves. Here are a few examples of healing practices:
- Restorative Circles
Sit in a circle to talk about problems, share feelings, and find solutions to problems.
- Community Conferencing
In cases of severe bullying, community conferences bring together those affected by the incident, allowing them to discuss the impact, take responsibility, and create a resolution plan.
- Restorative Conversations
This process involves a trained facilitator bringing together people involved in bullying to share experiences and feelings openly. This can help everyone work toward a resolution.
- Restorative Writing or Art
Encouraging people to express thoughts, feelings, and experiences through writing or art. This could be a school mural on bullying that everyone builds together.
- Teaching Empathy and Conflict Resolution
Educational programs that teach empathy and conflict resolution skills can help prevent bullying and conflict.
Potential for Positive Impact
We all have moments where we’ve seen something we knew was wrong and turned away. But there are always more opportunities to react differently. As bystanders, we can transform guilt and regret into a desire to make amends or prevent future bullying. We can feel empowered to become advocates for change, promoting kindness, empathy, and intervention.
Let’s Talk About It
Bullying bystanders are not passive observers. We carry a heavy emotional burden that leaves lasting mental health impacts. Breaking the silence and addressing the hidden scars of bullying requires a multi-faceted approach, including empowerment, support, education, and mental health awareness. By recognizing our challenges and offering everyone the tools and resources needed, we can create a safer, more empathetic society where everyone plays a role in preventing the enduring legacy of bullying.
Join the coversation and share with us your experiences as a bystander, bully, or victim.