Both Bullies And Victims Deal With Psychological Harm As Adults
February 22, 2013

Both Bullies And Their Victims Suffer Lasting Psychological Scars

Jason Pierce, MSN, MBA, RN for — Your Universe Online

A new study published in JAMA Psychiatry online examined whether involvement in bullying as a child could be a predictor of psychiatric disorders as a young adult. The study looked at information provided by children who reported being bullies and/or admitted to bullying other children. The study found that bullying has the potential to cause long-lasting psychological effects for the bullies as well as their victims.

"Bullying, which we tend to think of as a normal and not terribly important part of childhood, turns out to have the potential for very serious consequences for children, adolescents and adults,” said senior author E. Jane Costello, PhD, associate director of research at Duke's Center for Child and Family Policy.

According to US Department of Health and Human Services, “Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” Bullying may include physical or verbal attacks, threats or activities such as spreading rumors or purposefully excluding someone from a group. In many cases a child who is the victim of bullying may also be responsible for bullying other peers.

The researchers used data collected on 1,420 individuals through the Great Smoky Mountain Study. The participants were recruited as children in 1992 and were interviewed every year between the ages of 9 and 16. Costello and her colleagues analyzed the answers to the question of whether the child had been bullied or teased or had bullied others in the three months immediately prior to the interview. The participants were then categorized as “bullies only,” “victims only,” “bullies and victims,” or neither.

Over a quarter of the participants, a total of 421 children, said they had been bullied at least once. Almost 10 percent of all the children admitted to being bullies, and just less than half of those were classified as “bullies and victims.”

More than 1,270 of the original participants continued their involvement in the study as adults. As adults the participants were asked questions about their psychological health. Those adults who had previously been categorized as “victims only” or “bullies and victims” demonstrated a higher risk of psychiatric disorders than those classified as “neither.”

Those classified as “victims only” experienced more depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia. “Bullies and victims” had higher incidences of all anxiety and depressive disorders, plus the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, depressive disorders, generalized anxiety and panic disorder. Antisocial personality disorder was more prevalent in those categorized as “bullies only.”

The researchers accounted for other variables as well, such as other forms of abuse, dysfunctional home life and poverty, which may also have contributed to the increased risk for psychiatric disorders.

"We were surprised at how profoundly bullying affects a person's long-term functioning," said William E. Copeland, PhD, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University and lead author of the study. "This psychological damage doesn't just go away because a person grew up and is no longer bullied. This is something that stays with them. If we can address this now, we can prevent a whole host of problems down the road."