Duke researchers: Bullies who also are bullied suffer high rates of depression, suicidal thoughts

relder@newsobserver.comMarch 1, 2013 

— Duke University researchers studying school-age children in North Carolina have found that students who have both bullied others and been bullied themselves report higher rates of serious psychological problems as teens and young adults.

The new findings on what the researchers call “bully-victims” come from the Great Smoky Mountains Study, which has followed 1,400 children from Western North Carolina for 20 years.

“The bully-victims had the worst outcomes: depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts,” said William E. Copeland, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke. “This is a group we probably want to keep an eye on and work with.”

In the Duke study, about 25 percent of the original group reported being bullied, while nearly 10 percent acknowledged bullying other children. Nearly half of the self-identified bullies also reported having been bullied at some point in their lives.

Once considered a childhood rite of passage, the taunts, name-calling and physical abuse of bullies are linked to emotional and psychological damage to victims, studies such as the one carried out at Duke have found. Bullied children have a fourfold higher risk of developing anxiety-related problems, such as panic disorder, agoraphobia and generalized anxiety, Copeland said.

In recognition of the problem, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the School Violence Prevention Act in 2009 requiring all school systems to establish programs to identify bullying victims and intervene when it occurs. The latest results from Duke’s long-term study suggest a need for more outreach toward the aggressors as well.

“Bullies tend to come from socio-economically disadvantaged families with instability, and there is a high rate who have been maltreated as well,” Copeland said. “It’s part of understanding who bullies are. Their family environment is one that is likely throwing them a lot of curve balls.”

Bullies often develop signs of an anti-social personality disorder later in life, but not necessarily the suicidal thoughts and behaviors seen in bully-victims, he added.

The research, published Feb. 20 in the online journal JAMA Psychiatry, reflects a more in-depth look at bullies and their victims than is typically available due to the length of the study, Copeland said. In addition to looking at bullying incidents, the researchers have tried to assess pre-existing emotional or psychological problems that might play into their findings.

“One of the things we’ve looked at closely in bullying victims is anxiety: Was the kid having any kind of trouble in that area before being involved in bullying?” Copeland said. “But in most cases we determined it was a clear effect of bullying.”

He said researchers involved in the Great Smoky Mountains Study will continue to follow the subjects as they mature.

Ken Gattis of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction estimated about 5,000 incidents of bullying are reported statewide each year. Although he said that year-to-year numbers were not available, Gattis added that efforts stemming from the School Violence Prevention Act are helping reduce the problem.

“Anecdotally, I’d say it is getting better,” Gattis said. “A lot of school districts now have these programs in place.”

The anti-bullying message has taken hold in at least one Raleigh school, East Wake Middle, where principal Nancy Allen has launched an awareness campaign.

Allen said she isn’t surprised to learn the Duke study found long-term emotional consequences from bullying, because she was bullied herself as a middle school student “and when I talk about it I still get a big lump in my throat.”

She also said her experience as an educator leads her to believe that most bullies are less well-adjusted emotionally than children who do not bully others.

“In most cases I’ve found there is something troubling about their lives, and they need help,” Allen said.

East Wake eighth-graders interviewed this week said it’s hard for classmates to speak up or report bullies, even when they believe bullying is wrong.

“When you are in middle school, you don’t want to be the one to tell on somebody,” said Kayla Lewis, 14.

But Kayla said she found a way to act after learning that a relative was being bullied at school.

“He opened up to me that kids were saying stuff to him at school,” Lewis said. “I encouraged him to tell his dad. He did, and the bullies got caught. Now he’s fine.”

Charlie Woodlief, 13, said he thinks the educational program at East Wake has helped him be more sensitive to bullying because he understands the consequences.

“Now I can make better decisions when I’m hanging out with my friends,” Charlie said. “If someone makes a joke and I think it might be hurtful to somebody, I can speak up.”

Charlie was referring to what researchers call “the bystander effect,” which occurs when youngsters observe bullying behaviors but fail to speak up out of fear of becoming the next victim.

“I think it’s important for kids to feel open and empowered to say something,” Copeland said. “Bullies have a lot less power than we give them credit for. If someone says, ‘Cut that out,’ it can make a big difference, for the bully and also for the victim.”

Elder: 919-829-4528

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