Both bullies and their victims are at greater risk of mental illness

Bullies are at higher risk of antisocial personality disorder, the study found.

Bullies and their victims are at a higher risk of young adult psychiatric disorders, a new US study has found, with the worst effects seen in those who are both victims and perpetrators.

In a study published today in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers at Duke University Medical Centre assessed bullying behaviour in a sample of 1420 children.

The children were assessed four to six times between the ages of 9 and 16 years and put into four categories: bullies only, victims only, bullies and victims (referred to in the study as bullies/victims) or neither.

After adjusting for family hardship and childhood psychiatric problems, the study found victims had a higher prevalence of agoraphobia and panic disorder.

Bullies/victims were at higher risk of young adult depression, panic disorder, agoraphobia (females only) and suicidal thoughts (males only).

Bullies were more likely to have antisocial personality disorder.

“Bullying is not just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. Victims of bullying are at increased risk for emotional disorders in adulthood,” the researchers said in the study.

“Bullies/victims are at highest risk and are most likely to think about or plan suicide. These problems are associated with great emotional and financial costs to society.”

Lead author of the study, associate professor William Copeland from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine said the findings had practical applications.

“Based on this work, I believe clinicians, parents and school personnel need to start looking at bullying much more similar to the way that we view maltreatment and victimisation within the family,” he said.

“For clinicians working with children, this means that asking ‘How are you getting on with your peers?’ should be part of every assessment, just as it is to ask ‘How are you getting along with you parents?’ For those working with adults, this means asking about whether bullying was an issue growing up,” said Professor Copeland.

“If a clinician wants to understand why a client is struggling emotionally, then they need to taking bullying and assessment of bullying seriously.”

What parents can do

Dr. Helen McGrath, Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at RMIT University and one of the re-developers of the Federal Government’s National Safe Schools Framework, said the results were disturbing but not surprising.

“We know, for example, that a lot of kids who are often the ringleaders in bullying are kids who have a Machiavellian world view which is ‘Whatever I have to do to get what I want is fine’,” said Professor McGrath, who was not involved in the study.

“They are sometimes impulsive and they sometimes also exhibit anti-social behaviours.”

The Federal Government’s National Safe Schools Framework went a long way to combat the problem but parents also need to ensure they teach their children not to mistreat others and to stick up for peers who are being bullied, she said.

“Parents need to be on board and understand the importance of getting their kids to make a commitment not to harm others through bullying,” Professor McGrath said.

“We need to teach the link between what happens in schools and in the community. We need to teach people and kids that bullying is not a personal predicament, it’s a societal problem. It may not be you today but it may be you tomorrow.”

Framing bullying as a normal part of growing up was defeatist and wrong, she said.

“I don’t believe it’s ever been as serious as it is now. It’s much easier to be anonymous on the Internet and bully others by sending an offensive email or posting a humiliating picture,” said Professor McGrath.

“However, on the positive side, we now have some clearer directions from research as to how schools and the community can help young people to be safe and to treat others with respect.”

Dr Pamela Snow, Associate Professor at Monash University’s School of Psychology and Psychiatry, said the new study was significant.

“Bullying is a complex form of social behaviour, and as such, has complex inputs and outcomes,” said Professor Snow, who was also not involved in the study.

“However, this study is significant for a number of methodological reasons and highlights the seriousness with which parents and schools should view bullying as a form of dysfunctional interpersonal behaviour that casts a long shadow for all concerned.”