In movies, victims of bullying often grow up to be fabulous, wealthy, happy, and loved, while bullies get their just deserts in adulthood and often spend years paying for their misdeeds. But movies rarely reflect reality, and bullying can have long-lasting consequences that may interfere with the ability of bullying victims to develop into happy, healthy adults.
Movie predictions for bullies may hold true, though. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that bullying increased the risk of psychiatric illness for both bullies and victims.
Led by William Coleman of Duke University, the study followed 1,500 children for 10 years and compared the outcomes for bullies, bullying victims, and children who did not participate in bullying. Both bullies and bullying victims had more mental health problems as adults. Victims, for example, were four times more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders than children who weren’t bullied. But bullied children can become bullies themselves, and the study found that children who acted as both bullies and bullying victims fared the worst: They were 14 times more likely to develop and be diagnosed with panic disorder than children who did not participate in bullying.
Understanding the Results
It seems easy to draw a clear division between bullies and bullied, but the reality is that the distinction is not so clear. Children bully for a number of reasons. Sometimes they have psychiatric or emotional issues that cause them to act out against other children. Kids who are bullied or abused at home may learn aggressive behavior that they inflict on other children. And kids who are bullied by other children may bully to fit in, to gain status, or simply as a way of alleviating stress. Consequently, children who bully may be victims themselves, and the complex array of environmental factors that turn kids into bullies may predispose them to psychiatric issues.
The effects of bullying have been heavily documented. Short-term consequences can include problems at school, isolation, depression, anxiety, fearfulness, and acting out. But these short-term consequences can contribute to longer-term problems. Kids who are chronically bullied learn that they can’t trust others, and may become progressively more isolated. Without social support, it’s easier to develop mental health issues, and the symptoms of preexisting problems can become more serious.
Preventing the Consequences
The surest way to prevent the serious consequences of bullying is to prevent bullying altogether, but this is easier said than done. Even schools that have instituted comprehensive bullying strategies or no-tolerance policies struggle to control bullying.
Coleman’s study of bullying, however, reveals that stopping bullying after it has started probably is not enough. Administrators, parents, and teachers may believe that protecting a victim and disciplining a bully ends the problem, but children involved with either side of the bullying equation may need more comprehensive services to prevent long-term consequences. In addition to bullying prevention programs, schools and parents can take several steps to prevent bullying from creating mental health problems. These include:
- Taking bullying seriously and treating bullying like any other form of trauma or abuse. Children who have been bullied may need therapy, support, and assistance finding friends.
- Reaching out to bullies. It’s easy to demonize victimizers, but bullying can indicate a host of problems, including abuse at home and previously being the victim of a bully. Bullies might need as much help as bullied children.
- Teaching children social skills and assertive communication.
- Teaching children coping strategies for dealing with overwhelming emotions. Children who don’t have an outlet for their anxiety or sadness over being bullied may internalize their emotions and end up with more severe problems down the road.
- Bullying: What to do about it. (n.d.). Mental Health America. Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/bullying
- Effects of bullying. (n.d.). StopBullying.gov. Retrieved from http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/effects/index.html
- Martin, M. (2013, February 26). Bullying and psychiatric illness linked. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2013/02/26/172965377/bullying-and-psychiatric-illness-linked
- Salahi, L. (2012, October 22). Bullies nearly twice as likely to have mental health disorder. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/bullies-mental-health-disorder/story?id=17518230