NARSAD Grantees Link Childhood Bullying With Depression, Anxiety in Young Adults

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William E. Copeland, Ph.D. of Duke University Medical Center and expert on anxiety disorders and depression
William E. Copeland, Ph.D.

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 NARSAD Grantees 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.

Read more about the study in Psychiatric News

Read the study abstract

Article comments

Dr Copeland you are exactly RIGHT. I was bullied daily, yelled at, thrown into walls, cars, held down, spit on, hit, pushed, tackled, locked outside, sexually assaulted by 4 brothers.,1 was the worstl, My parents rule was no blood, no tears. When there was blood, it was never enough for tears. This was daily life. I saw pets killed. I told friends, teachers, school counselors, I even told strangers. We moved every few years, I kept telling. My first memory of sexual abuse was 3, attackers were brothers, parents friends, others. My parents have died I have no contact with siblings, I continue to suffer depression, anxiety, migraines, many phobias. I am 53 and with my neurologist help, I am healing. It has taken a lifetime to get here. Please keep publishing your findings.

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Please note that researchers cannot give specific recommendations or advice about treatment; diagnosis and treatment are complex and highly individualized processes that require comprehensive face-to- face assessment. Please visit our "Ask an Expert" section to see a list of Q & A with NARSAD Grantees.
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