Duke study offers convincing evidence of long-term psychological effects of bullying

A new longitudinal study led by researchers at Duke Medicine suggests that the effects of bullying may not be quite as short-lived as once thought. The study initially involved 1,420 children ages 9, 11 and 13; nearly all (1,270) were tracked into adulthood, and asked questions about their psychological health on a periodic basis. Up until the children turned 16, they were also asked at each interview whether they had been bullied or teased, or had bullied someone else in the last three months.

Of the participants, 26 percent reported being bullied at least once. Another 9.5 percent reported bullying others.

Those children who reported incidents of bullying –either as the aggressor, the victim or both– were more likely to experience psychiatric disorders as adults. Those who were bullied displayed higher levels of depression, anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia. The participants who had bullied and been bullied had the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, depressive disorders, generalized anxiety and panic disorder. Bullies, but not victims, had only a higher risk for antisocial personality disorder. 

The researchers took into account other contributing factors to psychological disorders, including poverty and childhood psychiatric conditions. 

In a press release from Duke Medicine, lead author William E. Copeland, PhD, assistant clinical professor at Duke University in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences said:

“We were surprised at how profoundly bullying affects a person’s long-term functioning. 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.”

The study, “Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolesence,” was published online on Feb. 20, 2013 in JAMA Psychiatry

Learn more about Polaris’s mental health outcomes assessment system for youth.