Bullied Children Can Suffer Lasting Psychological Harm as Adults

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Bullied children grow into adults who are at increased risk of developing anxiety disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts. (Credit: © Pixel Memoirs / Fotolia)

Feb. 20, 2013 — Bullied children grow into adults who are at increased risk of developing anxiety disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts, according to a study led by researchers at Duke Medicine.

The findings, based on more than 20 years of data from a large group of participants initially enrolled as adolescents, are the most definitive to date in establishing the long-term psychological effects of bullying.

Published online Feb. 20, 2013, inJAMA Psychiatry, the study belies a common perception that bullying, while hurtful, inflicts a fleeting injury that victims outgrow.

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

A previous longitudinal study of bullied children, conducted in Finland, found mixed results, concluding that boys had few lasting problems, while girls suffered more long-term psychological harm. That study, however, relied on registry data in the health system that didn't fully capture psychiatric records.

Copeland and colleagues had a much richer data set. Using the Great Smoky Mountain Study, the research team tapped a population-based sample of 1,420 children ages 9, 11 and 13 from 11 counties in western North Carolina. Initially enrolled in 1993, the children and their parents or caregivers were interviewed annually until the youngsters turned 16, and then periodically thereafter.

At each assessment until age 16, the child and caregiver were asked, among other things, whether the child had been bullied or teased or had bullied others in the three months immediately prior to the interview.

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