Bullies, Bullying, and the Long-term Consequences.

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Recently, one of my followers on LinkedIn and a reader of my Medical Science Blog messaged me to ask my opinion on bullying. While I have not practiced psychology for some years, I had some experience in this capacity, although from a more personal standpoint. Any child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s most probably had the first-hand experience with bullies. They may have been bullied, or they may have been bullies, but it is a fair bet they know someone who was. The difference between the 1960’s and today may be summed up in this ay: bullying was largely accepted and ignored then, while is unacceptable, but still ignored today.

Children in the 1960s and 1970s were often ridiculed for being bullied, as if they had somehow caused it. I remember my fifth-grade teacher asking me why I hadn’t left for my 2-mile walk home when the late bell rang? I explained that I was waiting for the 3-4 older kids who did their best to make my walk home as unpleasant as possible, to give up and leave. I remember my teacher’s words to this day, “You need to be a man. Now get outside and stand up to them.”

I had never done anything to any of these other boys. I had gone to school in our small town elementary until the fifth grade when I went to a consolidated Grammar-Junior high school. I was one of the new kids, and therefore a target. And because of my violent home life, I had some issues that drew attention from the bullies. I stammered, and could hardly talk. I had nervous ticks, and often it would take me 30 seconds to answer a simply question like what was my name? As a result, I was often made fun of, and on more than one occasion, by the teacher as well. Researchers Wolke and Lereya (2015) found that this inability to speak clearly, often caused by abuse simply led to further abuse, this time by peers.

My younger brother faired even worse. At the same school, he repeatedly had his hair pulled, and was pushed down the stairs on at least two occasions. Other students witnessed both instances, yet no one said a word. Why invite retaliation from the bullies. When students who are bullied complained to the administration, either to a teacher or Office staff, the complaints were largely ignored.

Although my children are now in their 30s, I remember going to speak to the principal on at least three occasions because of bullying. I never blamed my children for being victims, nor did I allow it simply to be ignored. When teachers watched as my children were ganged up on and did not intervene, well, suffice it to say all the interesting parts of the Bible were on display in those meetings. Oddly enough, I only had to make one visit per child to each of their schools before significant anti-bullying measures were put in place. Not to say that they weren’t already the policy, but after my visit, they tended to pay more attention to them. The difference between the schooldays of my children and my own is that today we fully understand the results of bullying. We simply choose as a society to ignore it.

While the victims of bullying decades ago where labeled sissies, and told to stick up for themselves (I am uncertain how one 11-year-old boy can defend himself against three or four much larger teenagers), today we know that children who are bullied are far more likely to suffer from both anxiety and depression, not just as children but later as adults. During my graduate work, I studied anxiety and stress in childhood and metabolic syndrome and adults, not surprisingly there were significant associations among several of the conditions including hypertension, obesity, and type II diabetes.

Of those people identified as having anxiety or depression in childhood, a large percentage reported being the victims of bullying. And while many might believe that bullying is simply a normal part of growing up, in today’s world it has taken an entirely new and vicious turn.

Cyberbullying refers to the use of the Internet to bully of others. The difference between regular bullying as cyberbullying is that the bully can maintain anonymity by using false names. Another significant difference is that once the malicious content is placed on the Internet, it is virtually impossible to remove it. There was also the feeling of distance in cyberbullying. While very few would argue that, by and large, bullies are merely cowards only interested in a confrontation when they have the upper hand (or several of their friends close by), cyberbullies have the safety of anonymity. They may never need to face their victim. While both males and females are victims of cyberbullying, it is interesting to note that physical bullying tends to involve males while cyberbullying is likely female, according to researchers writing in a 2010 edition of the Journal of Social Sciences.

Today, those who study bullying are finding that both bullies and their victims are at a significantly higher risk for mental health diagnoses both in childhood and as adults. Both bullies and the victims are a significantly elevated risk for substance abuse and alcoholism as well as domestic and child abuse. Up until recently, many studies on the effects of bullying where cross-sectional, or were limited to small groups without long-term follow-up. Without longitudinal follow up, identifying the consequences of bullying on health problems is difficult to identify fully. And while bullying is founded all societies, it is predominantly experienced in family situations with exposure to violence. The effects of bullying aside from anxiety and depression include self-harm, eating disorders, and suicide. According to Dr. William Copeland, a psychologist at Duke University Medical Center, significant long-term effects on risk for depression, anxiety, and even suicidality can be a direct result of being bullied. For others victims of bullying, poor school performance, low self-esteem, and dropping out are frequent outcomes.

Sociologist studying bullies have found that “pure bullies” those bullies who were not victimized, tend to be athletic, popular, and possess a good understanding of their actions. In this regard, we cannot say that they have a conduct disorder. Exactly why those in situations of dominance feel the need to bully others speaks to parenting and behavior modeling. The victims of bullies, however, are frequently described as withdrawn, shy, or unassertive. They may have poor social skills, learning disabilities, or some other aspect that makes them different. Victims of bullies may tend to internalize their anger and frustration. This is particularly true when adults, learning of the bullying do not intervene. Experts like Dr. Copeland also report that among bully and victim alike, problems may emerge with emotional functioning as adults, and pure bullies show an increase in antisocial personality disorder. People with antisocial personality disorder show little if any concern for others and run a greater risk of criminal behavior, according to Dr. Copeland.

While there is currently no consensus as to why bullying has such long-term negative effects, we can imagine how continuous torment at school, or at home, can cause elevated levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, leading over time to inflammatory responses in organ systems, and negative impacts in neurology, immune system, and metabolism. In fact, we might wonder why childhood bullying is not considered a major public health issue.

Weather because health professionals are largely ignorant of the impacts of childhood bullying, or because it is considered a normal aspect of childhood, recent findings concerning the lifelong health issues related to being bullied demand attention. If as a society we are truly interested in preventing violence, self-harm, and suicidality, it is imperative that we address this issue.

For further reading;

Hugh-Jones, S., & Smith, P. K. (1999). Self-reports of short-and long-term effects of bullying on children who stammer. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 69(2), 141-158.

Snell, P. A., & Englander, E. (2010). Cyberbullying victimization and behaviors among girls: Applying research findings in the field. Journal of Social Sciences.

Wolke, D., & Lereya, S. T. (2015). Long-term effects of bullying. Archives of disease in childhood, archdischild-2014.

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