Research supported in part by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation finds that children who bully, are bullied, or experience both being bullied and bullying are more likely to have mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, as young adults. The study by William E. Copeland, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Jane Costello, Ph.D. of Duke University Medical Center found elevated rates of young adult psychiatric disorders with the worst effects for those who are both victims and bullies. Their study findings were published online in JAMA Psychiatry on Feb. 20, 2013.
“Bullying is not just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up,” says Dr. Copeland, an Associate Professor of psychiatry at Duke in the JAMA article. “Victims of bullying are at increased risk for emotional disorders in adulthood.”
The study of more than 1400 children and adolescents, categorized participants into four groups: bullies, victims, bullies/victims, or neither (controls). All but the control group were found to be more prone to develop psychiatric disorders in early adulthood, whether bullied once or multiple times. Bullies were found to be four times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder—a psychiatric condition that carries with it a disregard for the rights of others. Bullying victims showed a higher prevalence of forms of anxiety—they were three times as likely to have generalized anxiety disorder (a condition that typically involves irrational worry about common situations), five times more likely to have agoraphobia (a condition often characterized by fear of public and/or uncontrolled spaces) and three times as likely to have panic disorder (a disorder accompanied by “panic attacks”). Youth who had been both bullies and victims were five times more likely to have major depressive disorder, 15 times more likely to have panic disorder, and in the case of males, 19 times more likely to be suicidal.
The researchers acknowledged other causal risk factors for psychiatric disorders and for bullying, including family hardship, childhood psychiatric conditions and personality characteristics, but the new research demonstrates there is a link between childhood bullying and mental illness in young adulthood.