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May 15, 2017

Study: Being bullied early on can lead to depression, substance abuse

Bullying's effects stretch far beyond the end of the school year, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of Delaware.

The study, published earlier this month in the Pediatrics medical journal, found that bullying, or "peer victimization," in the fifth grade led to 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.

The researchers used data collected for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2004 and 2011 that tracked 4,297 students in six states during their journey from fifth to 10th grade.

The students who underwent "more frequent peer victimization in the fifth grade were more likely to use substances in the 10th grade," the study found.

Specifically, those kids were more likely to use alcohol, marijuana and tobacco by the 10th grade, opening them up to other adverse health effects. Weed and drinking can lead to hampered brain development and physical injury, while smoking can cause respiratory illness, cancer and early death, the researchers noted. 

Students who were bullied were also more likely to show symptoms of depression by the seventh grade, showing that those youth "may be self-medicating by using substances to relieve these negative emotions,” Earnshaw said.

The study's authors hope the findings can help show doctors, teachers and parents why it's important to address bullying.

“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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