Adverse outcomes of bullying experiences extend into adulthood, for some

Both those who carry out bullying behaviors and those who are targeted are at risk for long-lasting and serious health challenges.

Across communities, many people are working to reduce and prevent bullying in the lives of kids. Much of this work stems from our growing awareness of the serious outcomes that can happen to young people. Kids who are targets of bullying can experience bodily harm and damage to their possessions, reputations and relationships. They may also be powerless, helpless, anger and fear, as well as a deep sense of shame and worthlessness. Those who carry out bullying behaviors may have similar feelings, as well as confusion about underlying issues that might be contributing to their behaviors. Both these groups of young people, as well as those who are sometimes described as “bully-victims,” can also experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, substance use and poor school achievement during childhood and adolescence.

The long-term outcomes related to bullying experiences are a growing focus of research. A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry (Journal of the American Medical Association) explored connections between childhood bullying experiences and psychiatric outcomes during young adulthood. The authors found that people who were targets of childhood bullying were at increased risk for emotional disorders in adulthood (such as anxiety and panic disorder), while those involved as bullies or “perpetrators” during childhood were at increased risk for antisocial personality disorder as adults. Those described as “bully-victims” were at highest risk for elevated rates of disorders during adulthood. People in this group had a higher prevalence of disorders such as depression, panic disorder, substance use and suicidality (recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation or suicide attempts).

Like many who work within the area of bullying prevention, the authors of the JAMA study stressed that bullying is not a harmless or inevitable part of growing up. It’s a significant issue with emotional and financial costs to those directly involved and to our broader society. Having programs in place to help kids and adults work for positive change in order to prevent bullying is an important step for all the settings where young people live, learn, grow and develop.

A new Michigan State University Extension resource called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments is one such program. Be SAFE is designed for use in out-of-school settings (such as 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, Scouts and afterschool programs). It focuses on helping youth (ages 11-14) and adults work in partnership to create settings that are physically and emotionally safe. For more information about Be SAFE, you can download a free PDF of the Introduction section of the 224-page guide at the MSU Extension Bookstore.

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