Being the victim of bullying often leads to substance abuse and depression

Bullying has been dismissed by some as “kids being kids” and “just a part of growing up”, but it is increasingly being recognized for what it really is: a devastating act with serious long-term implications.

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Delaware helps bring this into focus, showing that being the victim of bullying as early as the fifth grade is directly tied to increased risk of depression and substance abuse later on.

“Peer victimization really matters, and we need to take it seriously — this echoes the messages educators already have been receiving,” said Valerie Earnshaw, a social psychologist and assistant professor at UD and the study’s lead researcher.

For the study, Earnshaw’s team used data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2004 and 2011 – including 4,297 students in six states who were followed from fifth to 10th grade.

As the study explains, students who experienced “more frequent peer victimization in the fifth grade were more likely to use substances in the 10th grade.”

Specifically, the report shows that children who experienced more frequent bullying were more likely to use alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco by the 10th grade. Starting these behaviors at such a young age can put these children at risk for serious consequences to their health and a high risk of addiction.

These teens were also more likely to experience symptoms of depression as early as the seventh grade, leading the researchers to believe they “may be self-medicating by using substances to relieve these negative emotions.”

The team behind the study hopes the report can help drive more awareness about the effects of bullying and the importance of addressing it when it occurs.

“This study gives some additional evidence as to why it’s important to intervene,” Earnshaw said. “It also may give teachers insight into why students are depressed or using substances in middle and high school.”

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