The recent bullying-related suicides of several Canadian students, like Amanda Todd, a Vancouver-area teenager who posted a story to YouTube about being cyber-bullied, have shown that bullying in schools is not simply a harmless rite of passage, but rather an activity that has serious deleterious effects on students. Now, an important new study authored by researchers from Duke University and University of Warwick, England, has confirmed that bullying in the school context has a profound negative impact on bullies and their victims well into adulthood.  

The researchers concluded that the effects of being bullied at school are direct and long-lasting.

The study, Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullyingand Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood andAdolescence, released on February 20, 2013, documents the elevated risks over a wide range of mental health outcomes. It assessed psychiatric outcomes such as depression, anxiety, antisocial personality disorder, substance use disorders, and suicidality (including recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal ideation, or a suicide attempt), in persons between the ages of 19 and 26 years, by use of structured diagnostic interviews conducted over the course of almost 20 years.

The researchers concluded that the effects of being bullied at school are direct and long-lasting, with the worst effects for those who are both victims and bullies. Researchers have found that elevated risk of psychiatric trouble extends into adulthood, sometimes even a decade after the bullying behaviour has ended.

Both male and female bullies and victims were found to be at highly increased risk for depression and suicidality in their adult years. Notably, being a victim of bullying, or being both a victim and a bully, was found to be a risk factor for serious emotional problems in adulthood independent of pre-existing problems, such as family conflict or other challenging circumstances. The study has further suggested that the experience of being bullied at school likely alters a student’s physiological response to stress, permanently changing the student’s cognitive responses to threatening situations long after the bullying has ceased.

The study followed 1,420 subjects from Western North Carolina who were assessed four to six times between the ages of 9 and 16. Researchers asked both the children and their primary caregivers if they had been bullied or had bullied others in the three months before each assessment.1 Participants were assessed again in young adulthood – at 19, 21 and between 24 and 26 – using diagnostic interviews.

Researchers found that victims of bullying in childhood were 4.3 times more likely to have an anxiety disorder as adults compared to those with ho history of bullying or being bullied.2

The researchers concluded:

“Bullying is not just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. Victims of bullying are at increased risk for emotional disorders in adulthood. Bullies / victims are at highest risk and are most likely to think about or plan suicide. These problems are associated with great emotional and financial costs to society. Bullying can be easily assessed and monitored by health professionals and school personnel, and effective interventions that reduce victimization are available. Such interventions are likely to reduce human suffering and long-term health costs and provide a safer environment for children to grow up in.”

The conclusions drawn by the researchers highlight some of the reasons why urgent intervention is needed for both bullies and victims, and why the Ontario government, school administrators, parents and students themselves are increasingly stepping in to address the problem. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, almost one-third  of students are being bullied at school, and more than one-fifth of students report having bullied someone else.

Research has shown that a proactive and clearly articulated school-wide bullying prevention policy is one of the foundations of effective bullying prevention programming, and the Ontario government has recently set out a number of legal standards and guidelines for the establishment of such programming in schools.

Most notably, on June 5, 2012, Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, 2012 was passed, amending the Education Act. The amendments came into force on September 1, 2012, setting out a number of provisions related to the promotion of a safe, inclusive and accepting school climate. Under the amendments, for instance, principals must suspend a student for bullying and consider referring that student for expulsion if the student has previously been suspended for bullying, and the student’s continuing presence in the school creates, in the principal’s opinion, an unacceptable risk to the safety of another person. Principals must now also suspend students for a serious incident, including bullying, that is motivated by bias, prejudice, or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or any other similar factor.

Bullying is not just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.

On December 5, 2012, the Ontario government revised the Provincial Code of Conduct, by way of Policy/Program Memorandum 128: The Provincial Code of Conduct and School Board Codes of Conduct [“PPM 128”], in order to reflect the Bill 13 amendments. PPM 128 gives direction to school boards on reviewing their own codes of conduct and the local codes of conduct in their schools in order to ensure compliance with the Bill 13 amendments.

PPM 128 sets out standards with respect to respect, civility, responsible citizenship, and safety, as well as roles and responsibilities of school boards, principals, teachers, students, parents and community members. It also includes directions with respect to school boards’ duties to consult with various community stakeholders when revising codes of conduct, and tailoring codes of conduct to the specific setting of each school.

Pursuant to the Education Act, school boards are also required to establish specific policies and guidelines on bullying prevention and intervention. As of December 5, 2012, Policy/ Program Memorandum 144: Bullying Prevention and Intervention [“PPM 144”] sets out new directions to school boards on the required elements of such policies, which must be in place by February 1, 2013. PPM 144 provides that school board policies must set out a comprehensive prevention and awareness-raising strategy, which includes clear expectations for appropriate student behaviour, procedures for student reporting of bullying incidents safely, teaching strategies that support school-wide bullying prevention, timely, progressive discipline steps to address bullying, and procedures for reporting bullying incidents to parents.  

Bullying threatens not only the integrity of the school climate, but students’ long-term mental health and emotional well-being.

As part of the monitoring and evaluation of their policies, school boards must also conduct anonymous school climate surveys of students, staff, and parents at least once every two years. In an effort to promote a safe school climate, PPM 144 also provides that each school must have in place a safe and accepting schools team that should include specified numbers of students, parents, teachers, school staff and community  members.

This new Ontario legislation and policy changes represents a notable effort to reinforce the importance of developing timely intervention methods to combat bullying among students. School boards, schools, students and the community at large all have distinct roles to play in this crucial effort. As the recent study on the adulthood effects of bullying has shown, bullying threatens not only the integrity of a safe and positive school climate, but students’ long-term mental health and emotional well-being.