TORONTO – Thirty-two-year-old Lea Kielinen still remembers the names she was called by girls who were bullying her at the age of eleven.
“I was called a ‘hooker’ for the way I would stand,” said Kielinen in a phone interview from her home in Coquitlam, B.C. “There was one girl who sat beside me and would just constantly throw things in my hair, and call me ugly…I would be excluded from groups.”
Kielinen says the emotional and verbal abuse lasted for about a year and a half, and eventually caused her to write her own suicide note. The note was found by one of the bullies who raided her desk and brought it to the guidance counselor.
“I only remember going to two or three counseling sessions, and it didn’t help very much,” she said. “It mainly ended up being about my relationship with my parents instead of my relationship with the girls at school, so it basically just kind of got pushed off to the side. I just shut down and stopped talking about it.”
Kielinen says she still feels the effects of the bullying today. A recent trip to register her four-year-old son for kindergarten brought on a mild anxiety attack.
“It’s been a lifelong battle for me that is becoming more apparent as my child gets older, and how I’m coping with new friends that we’re meeting along the way,” she said.
According to new research from North Carolina’s Duke University, Kielinen is not alone.
Children who are bullied have an increased risk of anxiety disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts later in adult life, according to the study.
Lead author Dr. William Copeland said he was surprised to find the emotional effects of bullying lasted into adulthood.
Copeland and his team looked at more than 20 years of data involving 1,420 North Carolina children ages 9, 11 and 13. The study started in 1993 (before there was such a thing as cyberbullying) and interviewed children and parents annually until the kids were 16, with periodic interviews thereafter.
The study controlled for things like poverty, abuse and a dysfunctional home life, and looked at the impact of bullying on psychological health independent of those factors.
Unsurprisingly, those with no history of being a victim or a bully had a lower risk of psychiatric disorders in adulthood.
Those who were purely victims showed higher levels of depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, general anxiety, panic disorder and agoraphobia (fear of being in a place where you believe it’s difficult to escape).
But Copeland says those with the worst mental health outcomes later in life were those who were both bullies and victims, unlike Kielinen, who was purely a victim.
While this study didn’t look at whether they started as victims and later became bullies or vice versa, he hypothesizes a possible scenario.
“They’re probably not functioning too well at school to begin with, and because of that… they get picked on,” he suggested. “Instead of then feeling sympathy and not wanting to do the same to other people, they see bullying as a way to get noticed at school, and to get some attention, and so they then go and try to find somebody that they perceive to be weak or that they can then bully.”
The people who reported being both a bully and a victim had higher levels of all anxiety and depressive disorders, the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, and increased risk of panic disorder in adulthood.
Copeland is trained as a clinical psychologist, and says he traditionally prioritized the relationship between the child and the parent in terms of the child’s long-term functioning. However, he says this study is the latest to shift his ideas of how to assess kids in a clinical setting.
“What goes on outside the home and between the child and their peers may, in some cases, be just as important in terms of their long-term functioning,” said Copeland.
Copeland believes this study will change the belief that bullying is a “normal” part of growing up, and says he thinks Canadians are doing a “better job” at being sensitive to bullying than those in the U.S.
It’s also worth noting that the study found only 4.5 per cent were bullies and victims, and only 5 per cent were pure bullies. With 21.6 per cent pure victims, that means more than 65 per cent were neither bullies nor victims, which is a significant majority.
Copeland calls this a positive finding, and wonders, “if we were to do the same study today…what would the rates be? Is it more common or are we doing a much better job of stamping it out?”
Kielinen hopes we are, and is doing her best to instill her young son with a sense of empathy-which is already working.
“Right now he’s in daycare, and the teachers have told us that if he sees a younger child being picked on by an older child, he gets in the middle and tries to stop it,” she said.
“I was so proud.”