In April, a study was released about the long-term negative effects of childhood bullying, and the results brought me back to the darkest time of my life.
Almost fourteen years ago, in seventh grade, I published my first article in Discovery Girls magazine. I'd spent the previous five years filling up journal after journal with thoughts and stories. Seeing my words in a national publication should have been the greatest achievement of my young life. However, the four-page spread was bittersweet, as it documented my humiliating middle school bullying experiences --experiences that still inform some of my behavior today.
I remember peeling a "Kick Me Hard" sign off my back in front of a classroom of howling pre-teens and a bewildered substitute, who was ill-equipped to dull the roar. I remember being called an "animal killer" for wearing a fur jacket and then "cheap" when I explained it was fake fur. I remember a Spanish assignment in which everyone had to create restaurant menus to be put on display for Parents Night. I also remember begging my teacher to take down one drawing featuring an unflattering depiction of me -- a red-haired, heavily freckled girl chasing a pair of men -- right below the restaurant name "Comedor del Hombre" (which roughly translates to "Man Eater," an unfortunate nickname two male classmates loved to scream at me during Spanish). My teacher found the "Man Eater" picture funny and creative, so it stayed on the wall.
I remember being thrilled when a boy from another school showed an interest in me, and I remember feeling like the ultimate fraud when we finally went to the same school and he learned of my lowly reputation. I remember my best friend Crystal being pursued by the popular kids, who said she could hang out with them under the condition that she stop talking to me. I remember one of my male bullies asking me with concern, "Have you ever thought about committing a major act of violence at school? You get picked on constantly and I want to know when to run."
The Lifelong Impact of Bullying
Anti-bullying advocate Dan Savage is right: it does get better. More than a decade after those unpleasant experiences, I am living with the love of my life, finally in the perfect job for me, and friends with lots of talented people who weren't cool kids either. But every once in a while, something will trigger similar emotions to what I experienced in junior high. Suddenly I'll feel 12 years old again and undeserving of the happy, healthy adult life I've created for myself. I find myself anticipating the worst -- that I'll be out of another job, my only living parent will die, or my boyfriend will decide I'm not so great after all -- because I had to do that to survive adolescence. In school, I was prepared for friends to drop me at any moment to improve their social prospects. It was easy to doubt the positive forces in my life, and sometimes I still do.
New research from the Lancet medical journal could explain why these childhood scars have never fully healed, as the study found that childhood bullying has negative long-term mental health effects on young people. The researchers found that kids who are bullied are at a higher risk of having mental health issues later in life than children who are abused in some way by adults. Bullied children are five times more likely to suffer from anxiety and twice as likely to suffer from depression and self-harm than children mistreated by adults.
Dr. Dieter Wolke, one of the study authors, told ATTN: that these findings and previous extensive research he's done on bullying show childhood harassment has a long-term negative impact on the confidence of victims.
"It really does knock your self-esteem and how you approach people," Dr. Wolke told ATTN:. "If you get bullied for a long time, you don't trust other people. We also found in a different study that you're less likely to [be able to] work in teams, to find a partner, to trust others, [and more likely to] leave a job sooner because you don't like the conflict."
Dr. Wolke told ATTN: that his team observed two cohorts in the U.K. and U.S. for clarity and still saw a "near identical effect" of bullying.
"We knew this was going to be controversial," Dr. Wolke told ATTN:. "So we had a British cohort and a U.S. cohort ... The population in the U.K. is different versus the Great Smoky Mountain study, where 25 percent are American Indians, so there are also different social conditions. What was most important is the findings were near identical in the two samples and we had used different measures. That shows this is a universal effect."
The study authors say their findings absolutely do not discount the emotional and psychological impact of maltreated kids, but aim to elevate the issue of bullying as a serious problem that affects people for life.
"The major message for us is not to say [bullying] is worse [than maltreatment] because both things are really bad for children," Dr. Wolke told ATTN:. "The U.N. Convention On the Rights Of the Child states very clearly that we have to protect children from abuse and neglect from caretakers and parents, but it doesn't include protecting them from peers, which could also be siblings, but in particular peers at school. So we've got a lot of things in place like social workers, police, teachers, etc., working together on maltreatment, but the same is not in place in dealing with severe bullying. And I think that's the major message that we want to bring across."
Dr. Wolke added that mental health isn't the only thing bullied kids have to worry about.
"On a physiological basis, it actually alters the stress axis, how you react to social stresses, and we found ... that those who were victimized during childhood and adolescence had, by adulthood, the highest inflammatory responses, which are related to cardiovascular disease or depression, while the pure bullies, who are the ringleaders, had the lowest inflammation responses," he continued. "They were the healthiest kids."
A 2012 study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that popular kids earn more money later in life as well. Though Slate's science and health editor Laura Helmuth was initially skeptical of the research, she concluded after thoroughly vetting the paper, "This looks like a legitimate effect. The authors propose that the popular kids understand the ‘rules of the game’ socially and know how to gain acceptance and support; when to trust; and when to reciprocate."
That's not to say nothing ever works out for outcasts or bullied kids. A few years ago, journalist Alexandra Robbins published a nonfiction book titled "The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth," which attests that young people who are mistreated or ignored for being different often evolve into cool, successful adults for the very reasons they didn't fit in as kids. Robbins calls this "quirk theory."
Two years ago, I asked "Sticks and Stones" author and bullying researcher Emily Bazelon about Robbins's findings. "I love this argument, and as myself, I believe it to be my own story ... I do think there's a truth to [Robbins's argument] and it actually makes me feel a little bit bad for the bullies in some ways," she told me. "These girls have a lot of power now, but this is it for them."
Bazelon did, however, note the long-term effects of bullying at a New America NYC event the following month.
"[Bullying is] a campaign to make someone miserable," Bazelon said. "That's what's associated with higher levels of depression, suicidal thinking, and anxiety even 20 years later."
Big Name Bullied Kids
Musical sensation Taylor Swift has spoken many times about the way childhood bullying influenced her adult life. Even though she's one of the most influential celebrities of all time, she's said it remains a challenge to push the former bullied kid narrative out of her mind.
“I think who you are in school really sticks with you,” the 25-year-old toldVogue in 2012. “I don’t ever feel like the cool kid at the party, ever. It’s like, smile and be nice to everybody, because you were not invited to be here ... All of my favorite people — people I really trust — none of them were cool in their younger years."
In 2011, Swift released a song about bullying titled "Mean":
New Girl star Zooey Deschanel has been there as well. The actress toldInStyle magazine last year, "Seventh grade was the ultimate low rock bottom — someone spitting in your face while you are on your way to your locker. Having to fight your way through those years makes you ready for the future. I can snap back, I can make fun of myself before they do — I can do all of it."
These experiences inspired Deschanel to co-found online women's community HelloGiggles in 2011, as she wanted to carve out a safe space for females on the Internet.
Several years ago, singer Lady Gaga recalled being thrown in a New York City garbage bin during high school. The pop star said it was intended to be a harmless joke among friends but that she was "holding back the tears" the whole time.
"The boys picked me up and threw me in the trash can on the street, on the corner of my block while all the other girls from the school were leaving and could see me in the trash," she said. "It didn't sink in with me how bullying affected me until later in my life. I knew that it affected me deeply but it wasn't until a little bit later that I realized how much it affected me and how much it was still very present."
Life After Being Bullied
Jodee Blanco, author of New York Times bestselling memoir Please Stop Laughing At Me, is a survivor of childhood bullying and speaks at schools about the long-term psychological impact harassment has on victims. Blanco, who has been an anti-bullying activist for the past 13 years, and was the one of the first people to highlight the issue of bullying in the media told ATTN: in a phone interview that she wasn't surprised by the Lancet study. She knows from personal experience and the experiences of many survivors that bullying can stay with a person forever.
"I was bullied tremendously from fifth grade through high school for the same reason most kids are bullied today -- for being different," Blanco told ATTN:. "It's not just the long-term health effects either. There's a term I trademarked called the Adult Survivor of Peer Abuse, which is an adult who was either bullied or excluded when they were in school -- they were an invisible student -- and so they carry those wounds into adulthood. It affects their careers, their parenting, their relationships, and often their health."
In the video above, Blanco told the students of Joliet Catholic Academy about a particularly traumatizing high school memory in which a classmate wrote inside the front cover of her yearbook, "Everybody hates you and always will. You're God's worst mistake. Love, Tyler and the Class of '82." Though she went on to have a great career and start her own PR firm, Blanco told students in tears that she'll always feel somewhat rejected because of the way Tyler and other classmates treated her.
"There's a part of me that still thinks I'm a mistake because of what those kids did to me," she said at the time. "Do you really want one of your classmates to be 44 years old standing in front of a gym full of strangers having to admit something like this? No matter how successful I became, I couldn't diminish those voices in my head from school. You have power over each other's lives, kids. More than you could ever imagine."
How You Can Cope as an Adult Survivor
Blanco advises adult survivors to seek therapy from experts who view school bullying as a primary form of abuse. "If you were bullied in school or just felt invisible, don't let it haunt you," Blanco told ATTN:. "Find a therapist who you can talk to and help get your spirit and confidence back. Any psychological or emotional wounds you sustain will fester and grow as you get older. They will not go away. Deal with it head on and free yourself now."
The Illinois native, who wrote in her book that she was showered with praise at her high school reunion by people who mercilessly bullied her back in the day, thinks it's a good idea to attend reunions. Because of the reunion, Blanco learned that one of her big female tormenters had witnessed her father commit suicide around the same time she harassed Blanco. With this knowledge in mind, Blanco gained insight into why this young lady felt compelled to hurt people. The bully was traumatized by a tragedy at home, and this enabled Blanco to forgive and see the full portrait of this troubled individual.
Why It's Up to Adults to Enact Change
When I tell others about my experiences with school bullying, many of them say something along the lines of, "I'm sure the people who picked on you became total losers." Growing up, I hoped that Karma would eventually unleash its wrath on the mean kids, but as an adult, I'm horrified that this ever crossed my mind. No one has it easy in junior high, not even the students who seem to rule the school and take every opportunity to put others down. One of the boys who called me "Man Eater" had lost his father a year earlier, and the guy who suggested I could be capable of murdering my classmates was from a broken home. I have to remember they too were children going through a vulnerable period of life. For the most part, everyone who was cruel to me then is kind and supportive now. I'm not angry with them.
I am, however, upset with adults who continue to let bullying slide in schools. I'm furious that it took a slew of bully-related suicides for the nation to understand just how damaging bullying really is. I'm unhappy with the adults who assure bullied kids that harassment "builds character" and makes you stronger. I'm troubled that the research on the negative effects of bullying has been piling up and people still shrug off the issue as part of childhood.
Though it is a start, it is not enough for President Obama to hold a conference on bully prevention. It's not enough for dozens of celebrities to highlight the psychological impact of bullying and use themselves as bullied kid success stories. The responsibility falls on educators and parents of school children to intervene and manage the problem on the ground so today's kids don't have to wrestle with crippling mental health issues decades after the fact.