UK United Kingdom

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

Bullies and their victims are at a higher risk of young adult psychiatric disorders, a new US study has found, with the worst…

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.”

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Saunders


    Interesting article Sunandra. Is there a definition of bullying? I would imagine it has changed (broadened?) somewhat with the use of twitter and the internet.

    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Chris Saunders

      isn't bullying in the first instance a personal predicament, and a societal predicament secondly?

      When I was bullied in Primary and Secondary schools (both physically and emotionally), it certainly felt personal.

      Another anecdote from me I fear - part of the bullying involved 4 male siblings across the road from where I lived. They would tie me to a tree and terrorise me among other things - stones, sticks, verbal abuse etc - you know KIDS STUFF !!!!!!!!

      Anyway I moved back to my home town a while ago and ran into the family ring-leader (now a town businessman). He greeted as a long lost acquaintance and chatted about his mother an so on.

      I though - this guy hasnt a clue that he made my primary schools day hell for years.
      he's probably never thought about it, and yet it haunted me for decades. Go figure.

  2. Bernie Victor

    Martial Arts Instructor

    This article seems a little "light" on outlining what constitutes bullying. Was it considered that bully is generally "something that someone does to you repeatedly, that physically or emotionally hurts you". This idea covers all aspects from teasing and name calling, physical harm to exclusion and cyber bullying.
    Did the study look at kids behaviour only at school or was behaviour out of school also looked at.

    "If a clinician wants to understand why a client is struggling emotionally, then they…

    Read more
  3. Tony Grant


    Tony Abbott a known bully and his "flat personality" even the botox hasn't changed things, well I guess he looks better on the screen...distant shots?

    This has been mentioned of recent and I could guarantee he has a major "closed head injury" plus his family history of "running away" from conflict where real danger is perceived?

    A family history, check out Abbott's patriotic family history...Aussies will roll in their graves!

  4. Richard Windsor

    logged in via Facebook

    Using Prof McGrath's definition, the Minister for Mental Health is clearly identifiable as a bully in overturning due process to reject the evidence based "Draft Guidelines for ADHD" in favour of a non-evidence based "Clinical Practice Points.
    The rub lies here
    ADHD kids are 4 times more likely to be bullies thann non-ADHD kids according to this article. I suspect that ADHD inattentive kids are more likely to be victims

    1. Chris Saunders


      In reply to Richard Windsor

      I think what gets forgotten is that most people can point to instances of being bullied and possibly bullying in turn. It’s socially practiced and condoned whether we like to admit that or not. It’s all part of getting what one wants and/or taking advantage of the situation. One can forgo those wants and refrain from bullying , but there are situations where the social dynamics are more conducive to being the bully or on the other hand escaping being the victim and vice versa. One only has to…

      Read more
    2. Richard Windsor

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Chris Saunders

      "one swallow does not a summer make"
      I think I'll hang my coat on the peg of a larger body of evidence than a single anecdote. I can suggest that where parents are also bullies, contacting the parent can lead to disasters.

    3. Yoron Hamber


      In reply to Richard Windsor

      Think both of you are right actually, depending on situation :)

      But I prefer standing up, even knowing the futility of it. Without it, where would I be?

  5. Kate Sommerville

    logged in via Twitter

    Yes, there should be a definition of bulling in the research somewhere. Otherwise the whole piece of work makes little sense.

    Did the researchers consider that both bully and victim may have pre-existing conditions? I hate the term 'conditions' but hopefully people know what I mean.

    Both bullies and victims possibly experience a real lack of 'power' and the causes for that in itself would be worth looking at. That would be the root of the matter, surely.

  6. Stephen Lehocz
    Stephen Lehocz is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Interested public.

    “They (referring to bullies) are sometimes impulsive and they sometimes also exhibit anti-social behaviours.” I would have thought that common sense would show that bullying -is- an anti-social behaviour. Not an indicator of future anti-social personality disorders. It would be an indicator of anti-social personality disorders that exist in the bully, in the present, not just in the future.

  7. sandy moran

    logged in via email

    The target of a bully often appears anxious, insecure, cautious, and of low self esteem. Male targets especially tend to be weaker than their peers. It is a rarity for a targeted person to defend themselves or retaliate against a bully. The target often cries easily and may even collapse during the act of bullying.
    It is not uncommon for the targeted person to be a social isolate, lack social skills, and display little or no sense of humor. Many times targets such as these are just identified as people 'who didn't fit in'. There's bullying existing on the Internet, which will also strongly affect children's mental health. In order to protect children from the cyber bullying, parents need pay more attention to their Internet use and set relevant parental control on their PC. For more information, please visit: