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Bruises fade but the hurt remains

Ian Rivers continues his series on bullying, this week looking at its legacy after a victim finishes school

Ian Rivers continues his series on bullying, this week looking at its legacy after a victim finishes school

Perhaps one of the most difficult things I did as a young researcher was to listen to the heart-breaking stories former victims of bullying told me. Despite the passage of time, these interviews were filled with emotion, angst and ultimately a feeling of lost opportunities and the remembrance of an uncaring school environment.

Even today we read reports of depression, anxiety and self-harm emanating from school-based research on bullying, but very little is known about the long-term effects of this behaviour.

One of the reasons why there is so little research focusing on the long-term effects of bullying is that it is so difficult to demonstrate "cause and effect". Can we be sure that the mental health issues that are reported by adults are linked to their experiences of school? And can we be sure that their recollections of school are accurate?

Many memory experts would say that they are not, but I have found that memories of bullying at school are stable across time. And while there may be some degradation in the recollection of detail for minor events, "flashpoints" are remembered in unnerving detail.

Research also increasingly suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder can result from experiences of school bullying. Indeed, in the new version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), rather than focusing only on single life-threatening or perceived life-threatening incidents, medics now recognise that the accumulation of a series of distressing but not necessarily life-threatening events may also result in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Such symptoms include changes in behaviour (including unexplained outbursts of anger), an increase in somatic (physical) complaints, difficulties in concentration (and this may be linked to a decline in academic attainment), sleep disturbance (including nightmares) and withdrawal from activities once enjoyed.

Of course, there are more tangible concerns for schools. What effect does bullying have on the academic performance of the whole school? How many pupils fail to go on to college and university because their only desire is to leave an environment where they feel threatened and unable to succeed?

At the age of 16, and having reported being bullied by peers to his headteacher and school counsellor, Liam recalls his headteacher telling him that the best solution was to "leave the school as soon as possible. You're not considering going to the sixth form here are you?" And so Liam left, took his A levels at another school's sixth form and went on to university.

It is also apparent that bullying not only has an effect on victims but also those who observe it. We do not know how observing bullying impacts on pupils' academic performance, although we do know that it increases the likelihood of depression and suicide risk relative to those who do not regularly see bullying taking place.

Additionally, we do not know if subject choice is linked to a fear of bullying. Do some pupils, for example, opt for subjects where they may not excel because they are bullied by peers in those subjects where they do excel? It may even be the case that pupils opt for subjects where teachers have greater control over the behaviour and banter that occurs in their classrooms. Thus, the legacy of bullying is not only about after-effects; it is also about the choices young people make and how those choices are supported or not supported by teachers and parents.

One final form of legacy relates to the all-too-frequent reports of young people seeking to end their lives because they feel there is no way out of the abuse they face daily. Where once bullying-related suicides were linked to physical and verbal bullying, increasingly they are linked to cyberbullying.

Only a few years ago the end of the school day provided some form of respite for a young person being bullied, but that is no longer the case. Technology now means that bullying is a 247 activity, infiltrating the home and leisure time. It continues during weekends and holidays, with every incoming message alert provoking an emotional response that is a mix of fear and anxiety. Living in constant fear of the next text message or email is perhaps something very few adults would be able to cope with, and yet many young people do.

It is worth noting that most of the people I have interviewed have overcome their experiences at school. But is it not sad that they have had to overcome their school years rather than build on them?

Ian Rivers is professor of human development at Brunel University. He is the author of Homophobic Bullying: research and theoretical perspectives (Oxford University Press US, 2011) and co-editor of Bullying: experiences and discourses of sexuality and gender (to be published by Routledge, 2012).

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