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Bullying Exerts Psychiatric Effects Into Adulthood

Science Update

Once considered a childhood rite of passage, bullying lingers well into adulthood. Bullies and victims alike are at risk for psychiatric problems such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide when they become adults, reported a study partially funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) that was published in the April issue of JAMA Psychiatry.

Background

Bullying is a repetitive, aggressive act done to abuse or intimidate others. It can take on various forms—primarily verbal, emotional, and physical, although cyberbullying is also on the rise. Typically these scenes occur inside school or on the playground, but they can also happen at home or at work. A power imbalance usually is involved in which one child or a group of children torments another child who is considered “weaker.” Methods employed by bullies include threats, rumor-spreading, and exclusion.

Most of what experts know about the effects of bullying comes from short-term observational studies. These studies reflect general society’s view that most people overcome these events by the time they become adults.

“Initially I too was skeptical about these long-term effects,” says study author William Copeland, Ph.D., at Duke University, who as an epidemiologist knew of other traumatic events that do not linger psychologically, such as maltreatment and physical abuse. “Yet this is something that stays with people. A large number of people express lasting effects decades after their childhood experiences.”

Copeland and his colleagues tapped into a local population sample of 1,420 children from 11 Western North Carolina counties. Starting at the ages of 9, 11, and 13, the kids, along with their parents, were interviewed annually until the age of 16, fielding questions about peer relations and home and community settings. The participating children were again interviewed at 19, 21, and 24 to 26 years of age. Four groups emerged from this longitudinal study: people who were never involved in bullying, people who were victims, people who were bullies, and people who were both.

Results of the Study

More than half of the study’s youth reported being neither a bully nor a victim. Around a quarter of the study group claimed that they were victimized. About 7 percent confessed to being a bully. A similar percentage said that they were both, a group the researchers labeled as “bully-victims.”

Compared to those who went through childhood unscathed, victims had four times the prevalence of agoraphobia, generalized anxiety, and panic disorder when they became adults. Overall, bullies had four times the risk of developing antisocial personality disorder. These disorders still stood even after other factors were taken into account, such as preexisting psychiatric problems or family hardships.

Bully-victims fared the worst. Also known as “loners,” these individuals start out with less developed social skills and are seen as more impulsive and aggressive. When picked on, they respond by picking on others. Their numbers, compared to those never involved in bullying, tell the story: 14 times the risk of panic disorder, 5 times the risk of depressive disorders, and 10 times the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior.

“Victims report the greatest anxiety problems. They might become successful people later on, but they still think about the event and hold onto it. Bullies are socially adept and may find ways in adulthood to use these skills in a pro-social manner. Folks really underestimate who are the bully-victims. These are the ones who end up having the most significant emotional problems including suicidality,” explained Copeland, who is also a father of two.

Significance

All these disorders impart a great emotional and financial cost to society. Lowering and/or preventing bullying could possibly reduce human suffering and long-term health costs—not to mention creating a safer environment for children to grow up in.

Research into resilience or why some are able to bounce back in adulthood is ongoing. Some key molecules and brain circuit pathways have been identified in animals. Other research areas under exploration include physiology, genetics, epigenetics, and cognitive therapies.

What’s Next

Studies looking into which interventions work best for bullying are underway. Once these interventions are identified, research is needed to see at what stages in life they should they be administered. Lastly, other factors that play a role in bullying and victimization, such as sexual orientation, need exploration.

“This study suggests that we should pay attention to what’s going on between peers,” said Copeland, adding that kids spend more time each day with their peers, including school and online, than with their parents. “What happens to kids when they’re with their peers is as important, or may be more important, than what happens at home,” said Copeland.

Reference

Copeland WE, Wolke D, Angold A, Costello EJ. Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry , published April 2013.

Grant number: K23 MH080230