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The Trauma of Bullying

Contrary to a popular belief that victims of bullying may suffer in the short term but soon outgrow the impact of being victimized, some recent long-term studies show that bullying has significant psychological effects through adolescence and into adulthood.

William Copeland, PhD and associates from the Dept. Of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Duke University have studied a sample of 1400+ children over a twenty-year span, from the age of 9 into adulthood. They found that 26% of this sample reported having been bullied at least once, nearly 10% acknowledged having bullied others and of that group slightly less than half said they had both bullied and been bullied. Those that were victims of bullying had higher levels of depressive and anxiety disorders, panic disorder and agoraphobia in adulthood than did people with no history of being bullied. Those who had both bullied and been victims actually had the highest levels of suicidal ideas, depressive disorders, generalized anxiety and panic disorders as adults.

Dr. Copeland, quoted in Science Daily (Feb. 20, 2013, online) said, “ We were surprised at how profoundly bullying affects a person’s long term functioning. 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.”

In another recent study (Idsoe) of 963 Norwegian school children, a third of those children who reported having been bullied exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly avoidance behavior and intrusive memories and thoughts. The authors pointed out that children who are plagued with unwanted memories of traumatic experiences have difficulty concentrating on schoolwork but often suffer silently so that parents or teachers may not be aware of the source of their troubles. Professor Idsoe suggested that adult responsibility shouldn’t stop with preventing the bullying but that it required ongoing attention to those who have been victims.

Nearly 5000 subjects in the Children of the 90’s study were assessed for having been bullied while in primary school and then, in adolescence, asked if they had engaged in self-harming behavior. The researchers, from the Universities of Warwick and Bristol in England, found that those children who had been bullied between the ages of 7 and 10 were almost five times more likely to self injure in adolescence than those who hadn’t experienced bullying and that girls were twice as likely as boys to turn their distress inward via self injury and depression. The researchers suggested, based on these findings, that clinicians routinely ask about bullying and that when children show symptoms of self harm, school avoidance, or somatic symptoms that interfere with school attendance, parents and professionals should be alert to the possibility that bullying is a cause.

Journal References:

  1. William E. Copeland et al. Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and AdolescenceJAMA Psychiatry, 2013 DOI:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.504
  2. Thormod Idsoe, Atle Dyregrov, Ella Cosmovici Idsoe. Bullying and PTSD SymptomsJournal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 2012; 40 (6): 901 DOI: 10.1007/s10802-012-9620-0
  3. Suzet Tanya Lereya, Catherine Winsper, Jon Heron, Glyn Lewis, David Gunnell, Helen L. Fisher, Dieter Wolke. Being Bullied During Childhood and the Prospective Pathways to Self-Harm in Late AdolescenceJournal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2013; 52 (6): 608 DOI:10.1016/j.jaac.2013.03.012

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