Health Team

A part of growing up? Duke study shows bullying can cause lasting health problems

Posted May 18, 2016 5:22 p.m. EDT
Updated July 12, 2018 2:13 p.m. EDT

— Bullying is something many people remember about school. Some consider it a part of growing up, but there can be serious health consequences, even into adulthood, according to a recent study done at Duke University.

Airone Jones Sanders, a 9th grader at Southeast Raleigh High School, compares her middle school years to being in jail. She said she felt like she lived in a prison because of the constant taunting from two of her classmates.

"They were basically bullying me because of my height," she said.

Other students only stood by and laughed as Sanders was teased for being short.

"I kind of felt violated. I had a lot of depression," Sanders said.

Dr. William Copeland, an associate professor at Duke, is a nationally known bullying expert, who authored a major study on the topic.

In his research, Copeland followed 1,270 North Carolina students - starting around the ages 9, 10 and 11, and kept in contact with the students over a 20-year period, into adulthood. Participants fell into one of three groups: bullies, victims or a combination Copeland called victim-bullies.

"They say, 'Well, I have been mistreated in this situation so I am going to kind of go out there and see if I can kind of rebalance the scales,'" Copeland said when describing victim-bullies.

The results showed that victim-bullies suffered the worst lasting effects on their health.

"Higher rates of anxiety, depression, even suicidality into adulthood," he said. "We even see effects upon their physical health."

Copeland's research has helped focus educational efforts nationwide, including the anti-bullying program at the Alice Aycock Poe Center for Health Education in Raleigh.

"It's not some rite of passage, it actually damages young people," said Thomas Ray, an educator at the Poe Center. "Don't stand by, be a HERO. HERO stands for helping everyone respect others."

Ray helps students from Dawson Elementary in Halifax County learn exactly what bullying is.

"It's mean and hurtful," he said to students. "It's repeated, and the other person has a hard time of defending himself or herself."

Bullying can happen face-to-face, but it can also be indirect, behind your back, or online, as cyberbullying.

"In fact, a kid can be sitting in their living room with their parents, but can be getting bullied by somebody else," Ray said.

For the last few years, Wake County Public Schools have challenged students to produce anti-bullying videos as part of the Stand Up, Speak Out contest.

Among high school students, Garner High's Johnson Hansen won first place.

"You can find a friend, you can end bullying," Hansen said.

That was Hansen's experience back in elementary school when a classmate began abusing him and stealing his lunch.

"I remember feeling really helpless, and one day, I just broke down crying," Hansen said. "I just couldn't stand it anymore and one of my other friends came and put his arm around me and walked me home to my house."

In this case, a bystander did not just silently watch the bullying, he was a HERO.

"It made me feel like I had people who cared about me," Hansen said.

Airone Jones Sanders said she found healing through advocacy. She is part of a group called Teens Against Bullying, through the Family Resource Center of Raleigh.

"Bullying is an epidemic, and it really needs to be resolved," Sanders said.

According to Crystal Reardon, the director of counseling and student services for Wake County Public Schools, the school system is active with bullying prevention efforts. The schools train counselors, psychologists and social workers in the schools on how to intervene and what questions to ask.

Reardon said bullies are not always bad children. They need support too, but their bad behavior is not tolerated.