February 17, 2016
A new study from Northwestern University takes a unique controlled look at the impact of bullying on LGBT youth and finds that there are severe long-term consequences that result from it. In particular, LGBT youth face mental health concerns like major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) long after their exposure to bullying ends.
Lead researcher Brian Mustanski, associate professor in medical social sciences, spoke to ThinkProgress about the new study. “There have been prior studies that looked at bullying and victimization from a one-snapshot perspective — who’s being bullied currently and what is the effect,” he explained. “We were really interested in understanding the accumulation over time of these experiences.”
The study assessed 248 LGBT youths in the Chicago area, and though most (84.6 percent) experienced decreasing levels of victimization over the four years of the research, 10.3 percent experienced significant increases in bullying, while 5.1 percent experienced consistently high levels of victimization over that time. The different groups are characterized in this chart:
Bullying StudyCREDIT: MUSTANSKI, ET AL.
Referencing the “It Gets Better” campaign, which was a response to suicides by young people who were bullied for being LGBT, Mustanksi noted, “On average it’s getting better as kids are getting older, but there are some groups of kids where things are getting worse or staying pretty bad.”
The study does not specifically assess rates of bullying like GLSEN’s biennial studies, but instead hones in on what happens to those young people who experience different rates of bullying. It allowed the researchers to better control for whether the bullying had an impact on depression and PTSD over the time of the study. “What was unique about our study is we measured them when people enrolled as well as four years later, so we were able to control for their levels of mental health and make the case that victimization was playing an important role.”
Indeed, the research suggested that it did, particularly for PTSD. “Across the board, anyone who was not in that sort of low/decreasing group [Class 1 in the chart] had significantly high rates of PTSD — over nine times the rate of PTSD in the group with increasing discrimination, but five times for depression.”
“Similarly,” Mustanski continued, “We saw that unlike depression, the group that experienced high levels of victimization in high school that declines over time [Class 4 in the chart] still were showing high levels of PTSD, but we didn’t see that with depression. There was more scarring in terms of PTSD than there is for depression. Those earlier high levels of victimization are having more impact on PTSD.”
In other words, the effects of traumatic bullying (like physical and sexual assault) do not subside just because the bullying has. The study notes that PTSD can be “long lasting,” and that research with nationally representative samples has found that “the median number of years until remission was 14.”
For depression, the trajectory of the bullying was an important factor. “Those people who were showing increases [Class 2 in the chart], even if they started at a moderate level [like having something thrown at them] — they were the ones that had the worst outcomes for both depression and PTSD. They had worse outcomes than the people who had high steady levels. If it’s going up over time, it’s a particular risk factor for depression.”
Mustanski’s study did not assess specific factors that correlated with different levels of bullying, but it did find that differences by sex were significant, while race and age were not. “The main difference we found was that young women were experiencing less of the more severe forms of victimization over time compared to male counterparts.” He said that they have already secured funding to continue following the men in the study for another five years to continue assessing the impact of the bullying they experienced.
He hopes his research helps policymakers understand the importance of protecting young people from bullying. “I think that we know from some of our prior studies that depression in particular is one of the biggest predictors of making a suicide attempt. We know that suicide is one of the top causes of death of young people across the united states. We see links across victimization, depression, and suicide risk.”
But at the same time, he finds hope. “I like to emphasize that in our study, the majority of young people were doing well and didn’t have depression and PTSD.” He likewise thinks that increasing visibility and social acceptance will help bullying rates decline. “I think it’s important that most are doing well and are resilient. We don’t want to send the message that all gay kids are mentally ill.”
Nevertheless, he warned, “This is a population that’s at increased risk, particularly given these experiences of victimization.”