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It gets better? Bullying's effects last into adulthood, study finds

Bullies and their targets are more likely to face anxiety, depression

Topics: Behavioral Health, Service Lines

February 22, 2013

Young bullies and their targets are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders, depression, and suicidal thoughts as adults, according to a new study in JAMA Psychiatry.

The study—conducted by Duke University researchers—represents the most comprehensive effort to date to establish the long-term effects of childhood bullying. (According to the New York Times, most research into the effects of bullying comes from observational study rather than longitudinal research.)

For the study, the research team collected data on 1,420 children in Western North Carolina who participated in the Great Smoky Mountain Study. The children and their caregivers were interviewed about recent bullying four to six times between the ages of nine and 16. Researchers categorized participants as having been bullies, victims, bullies who were also victims, or children who had no exposure to bullying.

The researchers then reassessed more than 1,200 of the participants in their young adulthood—at age 19, at age 21, and between ages 24 and 26—to ascertain their psychological health.

When the researchers compared the three groups to children who had no exposure to bullying, they found:

  • Bullies who were also victims were 14.5 times more likely to develop panic disorder as adults and 4.8 times more likely to experience depression;
  • Childhood victims of bullying were 4.3 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder as adults; and
  • Bullies who were not victims were 4.1 times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder.

When the researchers analyzed the data by gender they found that men who were both victims and bullies were 18.5 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts later in life than participants with no bullying history. Meanwhile, women who were both victims and bullies were 26.7 times more likely to have developed agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder.

According to the study, the results held true even after the researchers accounted for pre-existing psychiatric issues and other factors, such as physical or sexual abuse, poverty, and family instability.

"We were actually able to say being a victim of bullying is having an effect a decade later, above and beyond other psychiatric problems in childhood and other adversities," says lead researcher William Copeland. He notes that many of these problems could be avoided if "we could set up a culture in schools where [bullying] isn't allowed to happen" (Reinberg, HealthDay, 2/20; Saint Louis, "Well," New York Times, 2/20).

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