Being bullied may lead to higher chance of adult psychological problems

A young woman sits along at coffee break as her co workers gossip behind her back. Shallow depth of field - focus on the excluded model in the foreground. iStockphoto

Being bullied when you are younger can cause more than childhood psychological trauma. A new study shows that bullied kids are at an increased risk of having anxiety disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts as adults.

"We were surprised at how profoundly bullying affects a person's long-term functioning," lead author William E. Copeland, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University, said in a press release. "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."

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), 20.1 percent of high school students surveyed had been bulled in 2011. Girls were more likely to be bullied than boys, with rates reaching 22.0 and 18.2 percent of their populations respectively. The rates have stayed similar compared to 2009 (19.9 percent) statistics.

Researchers followed a population-based sample of 1,420 children aged 9, 11 and 13 from 11 counties in western North Carolina who were enrolled in the Great Smoky Mountain Study. Children and their caregivers were asked if the child had been bullied or teased in the three months before each interview session. The children had entered the study in 1993, were re-interviewed at age 16 and then were followed up with for more than 20 years. More than 1,270 subjects were followed into adulthood.

About 26 percent of the children (421 subjects) said they were bullied at least once, and 887 said they had never been tormented. Both boys and girls reported similar rates of bullying. Approximately 200 kids -- around 9.5 percent of the group -- admitted to bullying someone. Out of them, 112 were bullies only and the other 86 had been bullied themselves.

Once subjects were tracked as adults, bullies were associated with a four times higher risk of antisocial personality disorders.

Those who had been bullied and those who were both bullies and victims were at higher risk for psychiatric disorders than those who had not been bullied. In particular, those who had only been bullied had higher levels of depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia. Those who were both bullies and bullied had the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, depressive disorders, generalized anxiety and panic disorder, and higher levels of anxiety and depressive disorders.

Particularly, 6 percent of those who were not bullied or bullies went on to have anxiety disorders, compared to 24 percent of those who had been bullied and 32 percent of those who were both bullies and victims. In addition, about 25 percent of those who were both bullies and bullied had suicidal thoughts as young adults and 38 percent had a panic disorder.

The associations stayed true even when other factors like poverty, abuse and unstable or dysfunctional home life were taken into account.

"It's not surprising that that would be the case, because in part they're reacting to the trauma of being bullied and they also carry with them the experience of having bullied," Dr. Mark Schuster, chief of general pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School, said to Reuters.

Schuster, who was not involved in the study, said that these kids probably picked on others because they saw it as a way of getting more attention, especially because people weren't sympathetic to them when they were being bullied.

Dr. Victor Fornari, director of the division of child/adolescent psychiatry at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y., added to HealthDay that the study highlights how early intervention into bullying can benefit a kid not only in childhood but later in life as well.

"Parents who become aware that their child is either a bully or a victim of bullying should seek mental health care, because many of these young people will have disorders that would benefit from treatment," he said.

The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry on Feb. 20.

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