Bullying's Hidden Danger
The latest research shows bullying can have far more damaging effects than parents realize, including the emergence of psychotic tendencies in some victims as they enter adolescence.
If you hear Jodee Blanco's painful coming-of-age story and it reminds you of the Stephen King classic in which a teenage girl tortured by her peers finally wreaks revenge upon them, Blanco will beat you to the punch. “If you saw Carrie, then you’ll know what I went through,” she says.
"I was singled out from fifth-grade through the end of high school," says the husky-voiced Blanco, 45, who grew up outside of Chicago, and is the author of Please Stop Laughing at Me, a memoir of being bullied. "I was very vocal, very verbal, and very artsy."
She pulled a butcher knife, threatened to kill everyone in her school, then cut her own face before her family wrested the knife away from her.
For that, she says, she suffered a litany of miseries: Some popular girls invited themselves over to her place for a sleepover, and when she finally fell asleep, doused her with ketchup, mustard, and makeup. Because she volunteered with kids with Down Syndrome and defended them against other kids' taunts, her shoes were thrown in the toilet with a note that said, "Everyone hates you, retard lover—go to another school." The abuse continued right through senior year in high school, she says, when a guy whom she thought was a friend (when they were alone, at any rate) wrote in her yearbook: "Fuck you, bitch, everybody hates you and always will."
By her junior year in high school, she couldn't take it anymore. In front of her mother and grandfather in the kitchen, she says, she pulled a butcher knife, threatened to kill everyone in her school, then cut her own face before her family wrested the knife away from her and took her to the emergency room. A barrage of psychiatric evaluations and medications followed. "Everybody had an answer," she says, "but back then, nobody understood bullying. They just didn't get it."
Since then, a growing body of research has linked being bullied to such later disorders as emotional trouble, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, which Blanco says she currently experiences due to being bullied. But now, a new study from Britain suggests that bullying may have even more dire psychiatric effects. Researchers from the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, followed nearly 6,500 children from before birth until age 13. They found that those who were bullied by peers between the ages of 8 and 10 were twice as likely to show signs of psychosis—such as visual and auditory hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking—by adolescence. Those who'd been severely or chronically bullied were more than four times as likely.
Dieter Wolke, one of the researchers, says the study is the first to follow the effects of bullying going forward in real-time, rather than relying on the childhood memories of mentally ill adults. The study is also remarkable, he says, because it found a strong correlation between bullying and psychotic symptoms, even when it took into account a family predisposition toward schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, in which such symptoms often emerge. "All current theories focus very much on predicting neurological or genetic factors in predicting psychosis," he says, "but this may actually show how potent social factors can be."
The findings come as no surprise to Blanco, who now tours schools nationwide to present her seminar, It's Not Just Joking Around, an autobiographical reenactment of her years being bullied. "My message to kids is just that," she says. "That it's not just joking around. You damage each other for life."
To be clear, Wolke and his colleagues are not saying that bullying alone can cause schizophrenia. They theorize, however, that it may bring out the disease's symptoms early in young people who are genetically predisposed to it. They also theorize that the psychotic symptoms may be the effects of the brain "rewiring" itself when a person is put under chronic, heavy stress. They will be following the study's young people into adulthood, which may continue to yield more clues.
Also striking about the study, according to Wolke, is that it found no difference between direct bullying—physical and/or verbal abuse—and more subtle bullying, such as social exclusion or ostracization. Both forms, if severe and sustained, were linked to psychotic symptoms. That, too, doesn't surprise Blanco. "Bullying isn't just the mean things you do," she says. "It's all the nice things you never do. That can do more damage."
The study adds to the growing evidence that bullying-prevention programs are needed in schools and communities, says Wolke. The programs that show the most success so far, he says, are "whole school" programs that address the issue on many levels—calling schoolwide conferences, having students do role-playing exercises and fill out questionnaires, and training teachers to better spot and intervene in bullying episodes. Peer-counseling programs, which pair children with older peers to serve as their protectors, have also shown some success, Wolke says.
An array of programs have emerged in recent years in the U.S., driven partly by new national networks of parents, teachers, and bullying survivors, such as the group Bully Police. Blanco argues that the most effective programs are ones like hers, where adult survivors of bullying tell young people how it damaged them later in life. "It's not about just hanging up a poster in the hallway that says, 'Don't Be a Bully,'" she says. Parents whose kids are bullied and ostracized should look even just "one town away," she says, to find their children an alternate after-school activity or social group that they can derive hope from, she says.
Years later, she says, the bullying she experienced still takes its toll on her, even though her life's work is now stopping the same thing from happening to other children. "When I went to high schools to do appearances, I would think it was 1980 again and would stand in the hallway, shaking. I'd take out my checkbook and look at the dates remind myself it was now, not then." And she's found another coping mechanism: She's since reached out to, and befriended, many of the people she said bullied her the worst back in childhood. They say they had no idea they were doing such damage, she says. "When things got really bad" with her post-traumatic stress disorder, she says, "I would call one of them and say, 'Tell me you don't hate me. Tell me you're not going to hurt me anymore.'"
Tim Murphy has contributed to the New York Times, New York, Out, The Advocate and Poz. He lives in New York City.