Children who are bullied are at an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders and depression when they become adults, according to a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The study identified that bullying is not simply a ‘harmless rite of passage’, as it can also cause serious adverse health outcomes in the victims and perpetrators, in the form of depression, physical health problems and behavior and emotional problems, psychotic symptoms, and loss of motivation.

The researchers, led by William E. Copeland, Ph.D., of Duke University Medical Center, evaluated the impact that childhood bullying can have on both the victim and the perpetrator in later life. They wanted to determine whether it can be predictor of psychiatric problems in adulthood.

A total of 1,420 people participated in the study, they were assessed regularly from the age of 9 until they turned 16. They were categorized as either bullies, victims, a combination of both, or neither.

The authors said:

“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. 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.”

The results showed that victims, as well as bullies/victims, were more likely to have psychiatric disorders in adulthood and experience family hardship and childhood psychiatric problems.

Factoring in family hardship and childhood psychiatric problems, the researchers found that victims of bullying had a high rate of agoraphobia, generalized anxiety, and panic disorder. In addition, they found that bullies/victims were at high risk of depression, panic disorder and suicidality. Bullies were only at risk for antisocial personality disorder.

The authors concluded:

“Bullying can be easily assessed and monitored by health professionals and school personnel, and effective interventions that reduce victimization are available. Such interventions are likely to reduce human suffering and long-term health costs and provide a safer environment for children to grow up in.”

It should be noted that teens suffering from depression tend to be more at risk of being bullied because of difficulties making friends. This could suggest that the victims themselves are more prone to being bullied because of pre-existing psychiatric problems.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist