In continued observance of National Bullying Prevention Month, I welcomed Dr. William Copeland, clinical psychologist, epidemiologist, and an Associate Professor at Duke University Medical Center to my radio show. He and his colleagues have recently published a research article on the long-term effects of bullying, which has garnered quite a bit of national attention (published online February 20, 2013 in JAMA Psychiatry).
Dr. Copeland was surprised to find that peer relations trumped other factors, like home life, and were therefore more likely to adversely affect kids over the long-term, even into adulthood. The results were so compelling that his perspective on bullying and the influence of peer relationships began to shift. The notion that home life is the most important variable in predicting overall functioning was turned on its head. Bullying should not be seen as a typical right of passage. It is deviant and damaging behavior. Like sexual, physical abuse or neglect it can affect all areas of a person’s life and functioning decades after it occurs. Those individuals who were bulliers and victims were at the highest risk for dysfunctional behavior, suicidality, poor relationships, unemployment, etc.
Dr. Copeland has been involved in numerous studies, both in the U.S. and Europe, which tracks thousands of kids over multiple decades. Using this data, Dr. Copeland and his colleagues are able to isolate bullying from other risk factors and trace its impact through childhood and into adulthood. He’s found that kids who are bullied have a higher risk of depression, anxiety, suicidality, impoverishment, failure to graduate from high school, even physical health! Its effects can be devastating and lifelong.
You may be thinking: now wait a minute. The experts that have been featured on this very blog the past few weeks have told us that there is no causal relationship between bullying and suicide. Ann Haas, of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, and Dr. Matthew Wintersteen, Assistant Professor and Director of Research in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University / Jefferson Medical College, both emphasized that there is no empirical evidence indicating that bullying is a direct cause of suicide among young people. The media exaggerates this connection, to the detriment of public understanding. Dr. Copeland absolutely agrees that we cannot say that bullying leads kids to killing themselves; direct causation is extremely difficult to prove. What Dr. Copeland is saying is that his data demonstrates that those of us bullied as children have an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors as adults.
Okay, so what can we do? The good news, says Dr. Copeland, is that we have preventative programs that are proven to work well. The best way to prevent bullying is through a school-district-wide initiative in which everyone—administrators, teachers, and parents—are on board and working together to prevent bullying. Unfortunately, many school administrations do not understand that bullying directly affects educational outcomes. So, many parents of bullied children cannot get the support they need from their schools. If you are one of these parents, Dr. Copeland advises that you even consider changing schools. What if your kid is a victim of bullying and doesn’t want you to step in, fearing you will make it worse? Dr. Copeland says that in this case, you need to step up and take your authority as a parent. You can report anonymously, but you have to take action. The issue is simply too important to ignore. It can put a whole community at risk for negative long-term consequences.