Most people can remember the bully on the block from back in the day, that cruel individual, male or female, who took great delight in dispensing psychological or physical torture on classmates or siblings. While bullying has been accepted as an unfortunate fixture on the childhood landscape, recent studies are demonstrating how a bully’s assaults decades earlier can have serious health and psychological consequences for the victims in adulthood.
A child who is the victim of bullying may experience depression and anxiety at the time of the incident. Being the target of someone who taunts, ridicules or physically assaults him or her can cause deep feelings of sadness, loneliness and shame. A child who is experiencing this abuse, whether at school or in the home, is often embarrassed by it and doesn’t want to tell anyone.This can lead to depression, with the child losing interest in activities he or she once enjoyed, sleep disturbances, changes in eating habits and problems keeping up at school.
Some children are more resilient than others and can overcome the consequences of being bullied. Certain protective factors, such as an intact family, positive parental connections and a stable home environment all provide a safety net for the victim of bullying, and can promote healing even if the child never discloses the abuse. Just having the perception that the child is cared for by their family enables recovery from such events.
On the other hand, children with certain risk factors may preclude them to being bullied and serious and impulsive responses to being bullied, including suicide ideation and attempts. Risk factors include low socioeconomic status, low parental occupational prestige, unstable family structure and dysfunctional families.
A longitudinal study that followed 1,420 subjects from 11 counties in North Carolina, starting at age six into adulthood, revealed some important results. The study found that children that had been bullied between the ages of six to nine had experienced long-term consequences with regard to mental health. As adults, the victims still suffered the effects of that childhood bullying, as these subjects were more likely to suffer from both depression and anxiety disorders. The female subjects who’d been bullied as kids were more likely to report agoraphobia, while the men who had been bullied were more likely to report suicidality.
Interestingly, the victims of bullying did not report higher levels of substance abuse, which was a surprise to the study’s author, Dr. William E. Copeland who stated:
“In some ways, I was surprised to find these long-term effects to begin with—I was a skeptic coming into this study. But I am surprised that victims are having a number of long-term emotional problems, but not necessarily substance problems.”
Another recent study out of Canada’s Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) at the Universite de Montreal has identified a biological change that occurs in children who are bullied. The study shows that when victimized, the body alters the structure that surrounds a gene called SERT which controls mood, making victims more susceptible to developing mental health issues as they grow older. The researchers evaluated 28 pairs of identical twins who were ten years old. One twin was a victim of bullying at school and the other was not bullied. The study’s author, Isabelle Ouellet-Morin explained:
“Since they were identical twins living in the same conditions, changes in the chemical structure surrounding the gene cannot be explained by genetics or family environment. Our results suggest that victimization experiences are the source of these changes.”
Further, a study out of Duke University demonstrates findings that bullied children may experience chronic, systemic inflammation that persists into adulthood. By studying a marker of inflammation, the study provides an explanation of how social interaction can affect health functioning later on. In blood samples of the study group, the researchers measured C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of low-grade inflammation and a risk factor for a metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. In addition to poor nutrition and lack of sleep, CRP levels are affected by psychosocial factors. The victims of bullying had much higher CRP levels as adults than the adults who had never been bullied.
In all, being bullied in childhood can lead to a difficult life in a percentage of victims who were unable to rise above the emotional pain of the event or events. Difficulty maintaining employment, financial struggles, mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, difficulty forming lasting relationships and health problems can plague those who were bullied as children. As Dr. Copeland said:
“The long-term emotional consequences of being bullied were much stronger than what we would have expected. For me, this suggests that being the target of repeated bullying is one of the more damaging experiences of childhood. Bullying is a serious problem, not only for people in childhood, but in adulthood as well.”