Psychological effects of bullying can last years

NEW YORK Thu Feb 21, 2013 1:07pm EST

A student sits in class at a South Dakota high school in a file photo. REUTERS/Jim Young

A student sits in class at a South Dakota high school in a file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Kids who were bullied and acted as bullies themselves were at higher risk for depression, anxiety and panic disorder years down the line, in a new study.

Researchers have known that bullying can take a psychological toll on both bullies and victims, but it's been unclear just how long those effects would last.

One report published earlier this month found bullying targeting lesbian, gay and bisexual youth contributed to their feelings of depression and worthlessness as young adults (see Reuters Health story of Feb 4, 2013 here:

In the new study, depression and anxiety tied to bullying at school persisted at least through people's mid-twenties. Worst off were those who had been both bullies and targets of bullying, according to findings published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.

"It's obviously very well established how problematic bullying is short-term," said William Copeland, a clinical psychologist who led the new study at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

"I was surprised that a decade down the road after they've been victimized, when they've kind of transitioned to adulthood, we would still see these emotional marks for the victims and also the bullies/victims."

His team's research included 1,420 youth from Western North Carolina who were asked about their experiences with bullying at various points between age nine and 16, then were followed and assessed for psychiatric disorders through age 26.

Just over one-quarter of kids and their parents reported they were bullied at least once, and close to one in ten said they had bullied other kids.

After adjusting for the participants' history of family hardships, the researchers found that, compared to young adults with no history of bullying, former victims were at higher risk for a range of psychiatric conditions.

For example, 6 percent of uninvolved youth went on to have an anxiety disorder, versus 24 percent of former bullying victims and 32 percent of youth who had been both bullies and targets of bullying.

Kids who originally reported both bullying and being bullied were the most likely to be diagnosed with panic disorder or depression as young adults or to consider suicide.

"It's not surprising that that would be the case, because in part they're reacting to the trauma of being bullied and they also carry with them the experience of having bullied," said Dr. Mark Schuster, chief of general pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, who wasn't involved in the new research.

"These folks are the ones who get bullied and instead of experiencing empathy… they're more reactive and they see bullying as more of a way of getting attention," Copeland told Reuters Health.

Youth who were just bullies and never picked-on themselves were at four times higher risk for antisocial personality disorder, which is characterized by a lack of empathy and mistreatment of others.

Psychiatric disorders in childhood and kids' family problems were tied to bullying but didn't fully explain future problems, Copeland and his colleagues found. Some of the adult disorders seemed to stem from the bullying itself, they said.

The study "calls attention to just how serious bullying can be, and it reinforces what we've been learning, which is that bullying is not just a rite of passage, it's not just part of growing up and all kids experience it and they're stronger for it," Schuster told Reuters Health.

"From everything we understand at this point, it can have serious long-term consequences."

Researchers said schools, parents and doctors need to work together to try to prevent bullying in the first place.

But for kids who have experienced bullying, Schuster said a supportive adult can go a long way toward preventing future psychological consequences.

"In part they need an adult who can help them navigate this, who can help put an end to the bullying and can create a safe haven for them," he said.

"Having to keep the secret that you're bullied and not having anyone to turn to for advice and support makes it that much harder."

SOURCE: JAMA Psychiatry, online February 20, 2013.

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Comments (10)
Robertbill wrote:
For better data, talk to people who are over 70 years of age. They are more likely to give you an honest answer. It takes a lifetime to overcome some sorts of abuse and to be able to talk about it objectively. When I was abused by my sisters 60+ years ago, some of the abuse was obvious (sexual abuse) but some was not. The constant comments about me being inferior had to have had an impact as I was growing up. Even today with one of them 80 years old and the other 75, they still lik, to tell me that life was really good “Until you came along”. 70 years and they stoll resnet my being born. Amazing. I no longer talk to either of them. I heard from a cousin that one of them may have died, but I don’t care enough to check it out.

Feb 21, 2013 1:48pm EST  --  Report as abuse
halligator wrote:
I was almost bullied to death.Attempted suicide at 15. Now I’m 50.I still have issues about things that happened in the 60′s & 70′s.Bullies grow up to be police cfficers.

Feb 21, 2013 2:01pm EST  --  Report as abuse
SandraL wrote:
I’m only surprised that anyone is surprised by this. I’m 47 and have severe social anxiety, generalized anxiety and PTSD symptoms.

And yes, if I had had even ONE adult when I was growing up tell me that what was being done to me was wrong, instead of either telling me that it was my own fault (“You must be doing something to encourage them to treat you that way”) or that I was imagining things, things might well have turned out very differently.

Feb 21, 2013 2:46pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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