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Bullied youth at risk for psychiatric disorders

Adults who were bullied as children may have a higher risk of developing psychiatric disorders and depression.

Researchers at Duke Medicine showed that bullied children had an increased chance of developing adult psychiatric disorders while child bullies were at risk for antisocial behavior. This study is the first comprehensive study of its kind to analyze the relationship between peer victimization in childhood and psychiatric conditions in adulthood. It was published in the Feb. 20 edition of JAMA Psychiatry.

One interesting finding from the study was that while victims of bullying tended to develop emotional problems in adulthood, the peer bullies themselves had a higher risk for antisocial disorder, said William Copeland, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and lead author of the study.

“[Antisocial disorder] is the pattern of behavior categorized by a willful disregard for others, which sounds a lot like what bullies do,” Copeland said. “The bullies that mistreated kids when they were younger are the same ones that end up bullying adults.”

The data was gathered from the Great Smoky Mountain Study, a population-based sample that followed 1,420 children starting in 1993—an observation period of 20 years. The participants were interviewed annually until they were 16 years old and periodically in later years.

The publication of the study coincides with another popular anti-bullying movement. A viral video addressing the effects of bullying was posted online one day prior to the study’s publication. The video, which features a poem titled “To This Day” by Shane Koyczan, has garnered over 4.7 million views on YouTube to date. The video hopes to “have a far reaching and long lasting effect in confronting bullying,” according to the online description.

Since the study has been published, Copeland noted that he has been receiving emails from people across the country and around the world, many of whom hold on to the childhood experiences in which they were harassed and bullied. Although he had not yet watched the entire video, Copeland said Koyczan’s poem echoes the same sentiments as the email responses he has received.

“Just seeing the study and reading about [bullying] brought up strong emotions,” Copeland said. “As a society, we need to start thinking about bullying and kids harassing other kids. These are negative experiences that can have a lasting impact.”

The researchers are in the process of developing follow-up studies. Based on the study’s results, not all children who were bullied went on to have psychiatric problems. As such, the next step is to figure out what predisposes people to develop disorders, as well as to find possible prevention techniques, Copeland said.

“We connected genetic data from the very beginning of the research, and we want to look at genetic markers to see who is going to have the most problems long-term,” Copeland said.

Many Duke students did not find the results of the study to be a surprise.

Freshman Rishi Narula noted bullying has a negative impact, especially on young children.

“I was never bullied, but I think it does have an impact on kids that carries through to their adulthood,” Narula said. “Most people create a basis or norm for the ways things are and their place in their respective social groups during those important developmental stages of life.”

The effects of bullying may even apply to people who may appear outwardly happy, noted junior Savion Johnson.

“I know people who were bullied in high school that are very successful now,” Johnson said. “However, this is just how it appears on the surface—it’s hard to tell how they are doing emotionally.”

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