Being bullied means always being on high alert. It’s the cold sweat that builds on the back of your neck whenever a bully is around. It’s living in constant fear of being a victim.
New research shows that this heightened level of anxiety among victims of bullying—and the bullies themselves—doesn’t stop after elementary school. It can have dramatic effects on a person well into adulthood.
A study by researchers at Duke University Medical Center found that both bullies and their victims live with an increased risk of depression, panic disorder, and behavioral, educational, and emotional problems.
The study, released Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry, involved 1,420 children ages nine to 16. Subjects were examined four to six times over a period of several years to determine whether bullying could predict psychiatric problems or suicidality.
“Bullying is not just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. Victims of bullying are at increased risk for emotional disorders in adulthood,” the study authors said in a press release. “Bullies/victims are at the highest risk and are most likely to think about or plan suicide. These problems are associated with great emotional and financial costs to society.”
Effects of Bullying, Being a Bully, or Both
Bullying is defined by StopBullying.gov as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” Bullying affects nearly 30 percent of children in grades six through 12.
The Duke research team found that victims of bullying have a higher rate of:
It’s not uncommon for school bullies to face abuse or other difficulties at home, and thus to be both victims and perpetrators. Often, especially in middle and high school, those who were bullied at a young age grow up to become bullies themselves.
Those who were both bullies and victims are more likely to have:
Not surprisingly, those who were bullies but not victims are at risk for antisocial personality disorder, a condition that involves long-term patterns of breaking the law, violating others’ rights, and being manipulative.
Previous research from Johns Hopkins University determined that stress—like that experienced by bullying victims—can affect the brain’s physiology and bring out latent mental illness.
Earlier this year, results from a study of children who experienced violence at a young age found that childhood trauma not only affects a child psychologically, but that the structure of his or her brain is actually altered to affect future decision-making.
The Duke team stated that bullying can “be easily assessed and monitored by health professionals and school personnel,” but as with many complicated issues, addressing bullying is much easier said than done.
Effective anti-bullying policies start at home. If you’re a parent, talk to your child about bullying, whether you suspect he or she is a victim, a bully, both, or neither. If your child is reluctant to talk about it, discuss the issue with teachers, counselors, or school administrators to combat the issue.
Professional counseling and therapy may help as well.
If anything, teach your child that bullying is a sign of weakness, not strength, and that it shouldn’t be tolerated.