New Study Tracks Bullying’s Impact into Adulthood

Anyone who still thinks bullying is simply a childhood rite of passage should take note: In one of the first long-term studies tracking the effects of bullying, Duke University researchers have found that bullied children grow into adults who are at increased risk of anxiety disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts. In addition, bullies who had not been victimized themselves were four times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder.

“We were surprised at how profoundly bullying affects a person’s long-term functioning. The psychological damage doesn’t just go away because a person grew up and is no longer bullied,” explained William E. Copeland, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Duke and lead author of the study.

“Bullying is potentially a problem for bullies as well as for victims,” said senior author E. Jane Costello, associate director of research at Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy. “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.”

The Duke study is significant because it is based on more than 20 years of data from large group of participants who enrolled in the program as adolescents. Beginning in 1993, the scientists followed 1,420 kids from North Carolina at three different ages – 9, 11 and 13 – interviewing them each year until they turned 16.

A total of 421 participants – 26 percent of the children – reported being bullied at least once. 887 said they suffered no such abuse. Nearly two hundred acknowledged bullying others. Of this group, about half also reported being victims.

The researchers re-interviewed the children at ages 19, 21, 24, and 26, including questions about their psychological health. To get a more accurate read, the scientists factored in other variables such as family history, poverty level, abuse at home, etc.

As adults, those who said they had been bullied, plus those who were both victims and aggressors, were at higher risk for psychiatric disorders compared with those who had never been bullied. Those who were only victims had higher levels of depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia. Bully/victims had a five-times greater risk of depression than unaffected children, and were 10 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and even more likely to develop panic disorders.

“By far, being a bully and a victim meant having the worst long-term outcomes,” Copeland said.

Copeland believes that what happens to children when they’re with other kids is just as important to their long-term psychological development as what happens at home and will likely stay with them.

“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.”

NEA’s Bullying Prevention Kit – Designed by educators for educators, this kit reflects the best available research on bullying prevention

Photo: Getty Images

  • Shannon Brooks

    Bullying contributed in large part to my older brother’s death. He was 46 when he took his own life in October 2012. Our family moved to rural Virginia when he was 14 and I was 9. On the bus to and from school every day, he was bullied mercilessly for three hours. The boys on our bus called him a “faggot”, told him he was an “asshole”, “gay”, a “retard”, and everything else you can imagine. Nobody ever did anything, even though our parents knew and the bus driver certainly did. I can’t imagine what he endured at school. You could just see him dying on the inside, but nobody seemed to notice or care. They thought it was his fault.
    I know that once he graduated (and it was a struggle to get him to complete school), he went to work with our dad and never held a job where he didn’t work with a member of the family. He was afraid to strike out on his own. He couldn’t handle criticism or pressure; he had no resilience. As an adult, he never married, never had a family, and never made any friends. He had hit bottom just before he died, losing his job and his home. He had been diagnosed with depression and was seeing a therapist and taking medication. We had high hopes that he might finally be getting better and might still have a happy life. I think though that the medicine and therapy made him realize how much he had missed out on, how broken his life seemed to be, and how long this had gone on. It was just too much for him.
    I am a teacher, and I share my brother’s story with my middle-school students to help them see that bullying doesn’t just make people feel bad and it doesn’t just sometimes lead to teen suicide. It ruins lives. It crushes self-confidence and makes people believe they have no right to be treated well, to be happy, to live in some cases. And it creates those feelings for a lifetime in far too many cases. It’s time to realize this isn’t just a teenage thing or a school thing. It’s a lifelong burden. Just as we wouldn’t allow one student to maim another physically, we need to realize that bullying creates the same lifelong damage to the psyche and soul. It needs to be treated as the crime that it is.

  • skoolteacher

    Even the word “bully” gives power to antisocial, violent behavior. The “bullied” are perceived as weak and deficient somehow. The reality is that the majority of my students want to be on the track of social responsibility, cooperation, and mutual support and shared success. Can we find a new term these pathological personalities? I suggest Antisocial Deviants. Let’s identify THEM as well as their victims!

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  • Being the victim of bullying from an early age leaves the individual with emotional scars. Their self-confidence is shattered and it takes a lot to repair damages over the years. The last thing you want to be is to carry on being the victim in later life, during the a working career. There are ways in which you can help disperse the effects of the workplace bully, and help to settle the issues. Workplace mediation is a good place to start to have a non-biased outlook on the ongoing situation. No one wants to leave a place of work and be forced out by the bully.