New study tracks bullyings impact into adulthood

“We were surprised at how profoundly bullying affects a person’s long-term functioning,” explained William E. Copeland, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Duke and lead author of the study. “The psychological damage doesn’t just go away because a person grew up and is no longer bullied.”

“Bullying is potentially a problem for bullies as well as for victims,” said senior author E. Jane Costello, associate director of research at Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy. “Bullying, which we tend to think of as a normal and not terribly important part of childhood, turns out to have the potential for very serious consequences for children, adolescents and adults.”

The Duke study is significant because it is based on more than 20 years of data from large group of participants who enrolled in the program as adolescents. Beginning in 1993, the scientists followed 1,420 kids from North Carolina at three different ages — 9, 11 and 13 — interviewing them each year until they turned 16.

A total of 421 participants — 26 percent of the children — reported being bullied at least once. Eight hundred and eighty seven said they suffered no such abuse. Nearly 200 acknowledged bullying others. Of this group, about half also reported being victims.

The researchers re-interviewed the children at ages 19, 21, 24 and 26, including questions about their psychological health. To get a more accurate read, the scientists factored in other variables, such as family history, poverty level, abuse at home, etc.

As adults, those who said they had been bullied, plus those who were both victims and aggressors, were at higher risk for psychiatric disorders compared with those who had never been bullied. Those who were only victims had higher levels of depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia. Bully/victims had a five times’ greater risk of depression than unaffected children, were 10 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and were more likely to develop panic disorders.

“By far, being a bully and a victim meant having the worst long-term outcomes,” Copeland said.

Copeland believes that what happens to children when they’re with other kids is just as important to their long-term psychological development as what happens at home and will likely stay with them.

“This psychological damage doesn’t just go away because a person grew up and is no longer bullied,” Copeland said. “This is something that stays with them. If we can address this now, we can prevent a whole host of problems down the road.”

MEA is a strong supporter of anti-bullying initiatives, and played a key role in the 2011 passage of House Bill 4163, known as “Matt’s Safe School Law,” which requires school districts to develop policies and procedures to address bullying.

The law is named after Matt Epling, a 14-year-old honor roll student from East Lansing who killed himself in 2002 after being the victim of bullying.

For more information on how to take action against bullying, check out NEA’s bullying prevention toolkit at