Bullying Leaves Its Mark

Bullying increases mental health disorder risks among victims and bullies

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) It's well understood that children can be cruel. Bullying has, unfortunately, always been a part of childhood culture. But that doesn't mean it's no longer harmful once children grow up.

A recent study looked at whether bullying appeared to have long-term effects on adults' mental health.

The researchers interviewed over 1,000 individuals throughout childhood and then assessed their mental health as young adults.

The study showed that victims of bullying suffered a range of additional mental health disorders in young adulthood, including depression and anxiety disorders.

Meanwhile, those who had been both bullies and victims of bullying had an even higher rate of mental health problems.

"Speak up to stop bullying."

The study, led by William E. Copeland, PhD, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, looked at the possible long-term effects of bullying.

The researchers conducted interviews with 1,420 participants during their childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. The researchers checked in with the children four to six times when the participants were between the ages of 9 and 16.

During each of these meetings, the researchers asked the children and their caregivers whether the child had been bullied or teased within the past three months.

The participants were either victims of bullying, had been bullies themselves, had been both a victim and a bully or had not engaged in or experienced bullying.

Then the researchers interviewed the participants three times in early adulthood, when the participants were age 19, 21 and 24 to 26 years old.

During these interviews, the researchers were assessing the participants for psychiatric issues, such as depression, anxiety, substance use problems, suicidal thoughts or attempts and antisocial personality disorder.

The researchers found that both victims of bullying and those who had been both a victim and a bully had higher rates of mental health problems as young adults.

These individuals also had higher rates of mental health disorders and more family hardships when they were children.

Therefore, the researchers made calculations in their analysis to try to account for the family hardships and childhood history of mental health as much as possible. They tried to even out the effect to see if the bullying itself - as a victim or a bully - might make a difference to the young adults' mental health.

After making these adjustments to their analysis, the researchers found that victims were four and a half times more likely to have agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is a panic disorder in which individuals have severe anxiety attacks, especially if they are in a place where they feel they cannot escape or they cannot get help.

Victims of bullying were also almost three times more likely to have generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder.

Those who were both bullies and victims in childhood were nearly five times more likely to have depression as young adults and were 14.5 times more likely to have panic disorder.

Those who were both bullies and victims were also 18.5 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts or attempts, and girls in this group were 26.7 times more likely to have agoraphobia.

The only participants found to have a higher risk of antisocial personality disorder were those who had been bullies only. They were about four times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder than the other groups.

Even though these higher risks were calculated after the researchers tried to account for childhood mental health issues and for a history of family hardships, it was very difficult to pick apart the possible effects of a child's experiences on their long-term mental health. It was difficult for the researchers to completely account for mental health problems or family hardships in childhood.

Regardless, the researchers concluded that victims of bullying, and especially those who were both victims and then bullies themselves, were at a higher risk for emotional problems in adulthood.

"Both males and females are equally adversely affected by peer victimization," the researchers wrote. "Similarly, both male and female bullies/victims were at highly increased risk for depression. This provides strong evidence that being a victim of bullying or being both a victim and a perpetrator is a risk factor for serious emotional problems for both males and females, independent of pre-existing problems."

The researchers recommended that health professionals and school faculty and staff monitor bullying and intervene to stop it.

The study was published February 20 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation and the William T. Grant Foundation. The researchers declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
February 20, 2013
Last Updated:
February 20, 2013