Bullied Kids Are Hurt Long After Harassment Ends

Guests

Alan Eisenberg, founder, Bullying Stories
Jenna Russell, reporter, Boston Globe
Dr. Jorge Srabstein, medical director, Clinic for Health Problems Related to Bullying, Children's National Medical Center

Researchers are just beginning to understand how the effects of the abuse lingers in victims into young adulthood, middle age and even retirement. In many cases, memories of bullying hinder victims in nearly every aspect of their lives, from career choices to social interactions.

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TONY COX, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

Childhood bullying is an age-old problem, but researchers are just beginning to understand how the effects of abuse stay with victims into young adulthood, middle age, and even retirement.

In a recent Boston Globe series, more than 100 accounts of victims of bullying were shared, painful memories of playground fights, taunting and name-calling and much more. They also shared a common regret: not fighting back. And years later, many have still not overcome the emotional toll.

In a moment, we will hear from one of the victims from that newspaper series, and later in the program today, Jimi Izrael joins us to talk about Cleveland awaiting LeBron James' first trip back home since he bolted for South Beach last July.

First, though, we want to hear from you. If you or your loved ones have been bullied, how has the taunting affected you over the years? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now, Alan Eisenberg. He was interviewed for the Boston Globe series on bullying. Alan, welcome to the program.

Mr. ALAN EISENBERG (Founder, Bullying Stories): Thank you, Tony.

COX: Tell us your story. Your family moved from Lexington when you were seven, and the school playground, apparently, was a pretty tough place for you.

Mr. EISENBERG: Yeah, we basically, when I was seven, we moved into Lexington from what was Bowie, Maryland. So we moved north. And, you know, in my early days, probably I was a pretty popular young kid at five and thought I could carry that out to the playground when I got to Lexington.

And I found out fairly quickly in the early days, around second and third grade, that that was not going to be the case. And not only was it not going to be the case but that I would be relentlessly bullied for the six years that I was in Lexington.

COX: How old are you now, Alan?

Mr. EISENBERG: I'm 42.

COX: And how painful are the memories of that for you today, if they are still?

Mr. EISENBERG: Well, what I found was that, as I got older, and we had moved away, things had happened that, during those six years of relentless bullying, that, you know, formed who I feel like I ended up becoming and some of my personality traits and some of the, I think, the problems I had in terms of, you know, coping mechanisms as I got older.

And I think I realized somewhere in my early 20s that there were things that I was feeling and having issues with that felt that were I could trace back to the same sort of feelings and issues I felt I was having while being relentlessly bullied and during those years.

And I do feel those years form who you are. Those are very important years of childhood. And so, you know, ultimately what I found is, as I did research and dedicated more time to it, that I believe that's true.

COX: And now you run a website?

Mr. EISENBERG: Yes, I run a website for the last three years. I've maintained a website that started as sort of a cathartic way for me to tell my stories.

You know, one of the things I feel is that adults are afraid to share what happened to them. It sort of comes across as a weakness. And, you know, one of the things I wanted to do, not only to release my stories from myself, but also let other adults and even children know that they're not alone in what happened to them and that, you know, ultimately try to discuss the fact that there are long-term effects from the bullying.

COX: Alan Eisenberg was interviewed for the Boston Globe series on effects of bullying over time. He also runs, as he just said, Bullying Stories, a site for people to tell their stories of being bullied.

There is a link to the site on our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us by phone from his home in Fairfax, Virginia. Alan, thank you for dropping by.

Mr. EISENBERG: Thank you very much.

COX: Jenna Russell is the reporter who put together that series on bullying and its effects for the Boston Globe. She joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Jenna, welcome.

Ms. JENNA RUSSELL (Reporter, Boston Globe): Thank you, Tony.

COX: As we said in the introduction, you and your colleagues reviewed more than 100 adults who were childhood bully victims. Is Alan's story common among them?

Ms. RUSSELL: Yes, absolutely. In fact, the reason we did this story was really because of a revelation that we had after we published the first story in our series on bullying about the experience of a 14-year-old girl.

And after that story, we were flooded with emails, from adults, from people in their 30s, 40s, 50s, even in their 60s, who were still suffering in a variety of ways. And, quite frankly, I was stunned by this. It had never occurred to me that the consequences could be so long-lasting.

And they were suffering from depression, anxiety, anger and even effects on major life decisions. They described things like whether they went to college, what kind of career they pursued in adulthood were, they said, influenced by what had happened to them when they were very young.

COX: In your research, was there anything, a string, a connection that tied all of these people together, beyond the fact that they were all bullied, in terms of either their personalities or their circumstances? Or did you find that people who were victims of bullying came from all spectrums of the community?

Ms. RUSSELL: I think that was a very interesting part of this for me, was to see that these people were bullied for many, many different reasons. Some of them were very big for their age. Some of them were very small. Some of them were quiet and shy and introverted, and others were quite outgoing.

But for different reasons, they became targets in a way that was not passing but that lasted for a long time.

COX: We're going to take some calls, and we're going to begin with Julianna(ph). She's calling us from Atlantic City, New Jersey. Julianna, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JULIANNA (Caller): Hi, I love your show.

COX: Thank you.

JULIANNA: I was I'm from northeast Philadelphia, and I'm a redhead, and I was bullied every single day throughout middle school and high school. And actually recently, one of the worst bullies, a male, he contacted me on Facebook and sent me a whole thread of, I'd say, like eight emails bullying me, telling me I looked really great, thank you for all the plastic surgery, which I never had, and continued the bullying.

COX: Are you saying wait a minute, did somebody continue the bullying after all these years, via Facebook with you?

JULIANNA: I'm 26, and this happened three weeks ago.

COX: What did you do?

JULIANNA: I well, I'm a freelance journalist. So I was about to I'm just about to write an article about it to follow up. But I didn't I couldn't respond. I just shut down. You know, it ruined, like, three days of my life. I just shut down.

COX: Julianna, thank you very much for sharing that. Let me come and ask you, Jenna. You wrote a lot about people who were bullied as children and the effects and the trauma of that, revisiting them as they got older. But I don't recall reading anyone coming back and being attacked again by the same tormentor that they had as children.

Ms. RUSSELL: That is really a very unfortunate story. And no, like, I've not heard that. I've heard people tell me that even as adults in their hometowns, if they were walking down the street decades later and saw the person who bullied them that they would still feel very much afraid and almost panic-stricken as they would have as a child.

And I've also heard much happier stories of bullies who have contacted victims in adulthood to apologize. I think actually, your previous guest Alan Eisenberg had an experience like that. But this is something that is speaks to the very problematic nature of the new technology, which can allow these kinds of contacts to go on.

COX: I'm going to take another call, and I want to preface it by saying also, Jenna, that in the articles that you have written, the series that you have done, and they were quite interesting, and the stories were very compelling, that again, nowhere did we see that it ended in something tragic as death. But this is Sheila(ph) from St. Louis, Missouri. Sheila, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. What is your story?

SHEILA (Caller): My name is Sheila Mitchell(ph), and my son, Adam Mitchell(ph), just passed away on October 30. And he was bullied. He had red hair, too. He was bullied from elementary school to high school. He couldn't even use the bathroom at high school.

He would hold his bowels all day long, and it was then in college he got bullied. And right now, I'm organizing a march on his birthday, which is August 11. He was born on Rene Caisse's birthday. She was bullied also. She has an herbal formula that cures cancer. And she was bullied, and the doctor that wrote the book about it, Dr. Gary Glum, wrote a book called "Calling of an Angel." And he's been bullied.

And I'm organizing this march on Washington, August 11th, 12th and 13th, an annual event to stop the bullying. The model of bullying is just all in our society.

COX: Thank you, Sheila, for sharing your story. Let me let Jenna respond to it. These are heart-wrenching kinds of things to listen to. And I'm assuming that through your work in the series that you wrote, that you ran into stories maybe not as tragic as this one but certainly tragic in their own way.

Ms. RUSSELL: Well, we started the series because of and in the wake of the death of a young girl in Massachusetts, Phoebe Prince, that many of your listeners have probably heard of, who did commit suicide after she had been bullied at school.

And that case has received a lot of attention because of the fact that some of the bullies have actually been charged in connection with what happened.

And my heart goes out to your caller. It's heartbreaking to hear these things. But I think it's very I want to commend her for speaking out about what happened to her son, and for taking action. I think only by talking about it can we try to do something about it.

The hardest thing for me in reporting this story was to find adult victims who were willing to speak on the record and give me their names because of the lasting sense of shame that they felt. And we have to I think my hope is that the series can help people get to a point where it's not going to be so shameful to talk about.

COX: There was a perception, I think, at one point that persons who were bullied were in the minority, that there was just one or two or three maybe in a class or in a neighborhood. In your research, are you finding that it's a lot more widespread because people are now just beginning to talk about it?

Ms. RUSSELL: I definitely think that there's probably a misperception about how common it is because of that shame and the silence, the fact that just victims and even into adulthood, they don't want to talk about it, even to their own spouse or to their own children.

And I think that it is more common. I think that the extreme cases are not as common. But it's something that people tell me it crops up in the workplace, you know, later on in life. And in every segment of society, it seems, you can find bullies. And I think it's much more pervasive than people have realized, probably.

COX: I'm going to ask you in a few moments to talk about whether there are gender differences with regard to bullying or perhaps even cultural or even racial differences. We'll do that in a moment.

We want to hear from you, though, by the way. If you or your loved ones have been bullied, how has the taunting affected you over the years? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. You can reach us by email, talk@npr.org. And up next, we will talk with a doctor who specializes in health problems related to bullying. Stay with us. I'm Tony Cox. It is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News, I'm Tony Cox.

We hear a lot about bullies, the scope of the problem and ways to reduce bullying. But what about the victims? That is our focus today, the long-term effects on the kids and young adults who are repeatedly harassed, beaten up or picked on.

Doctors are beginning to understand that those effects can last for decades. We want to hear from you. If you or your loved ones have been bullied, how has the taunting affected you over the years?

Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255, email address talk@npr.org, that's talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jenna Russell has been our first guest. She reported on a series she reported a series in the Boston Globe on bullying and its effects on students, families and schools. There is a link to those stories on our website, npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We are also right now going to be joined by a doctor who has been looking into this. His name is Dr. Jorge Srabstein. He is the medical director in the Clinic for Health Problems Related to Bullying at the Children's National Medical Center. Dr. Srabstein, welcome to the show.

Dr. JORGE SRABSTEIN (Children's National Medical Center): Thank you, Tony.

COX: Tell us what the researchers have discovered about the long-term effects of childhood bullying.

Dr. SRABSTEIN: Well, first of all, children and adolescents involved in bullying suffer a wide spectrum of physical and emotional symptoms: depression, irritability, anxiety, sleeping problems, headaches and stomach aches - those that are victims, those that are victimizers, and about all those who are both perpetrators and victims.

But (unintelligible) the longitudinal studies, especially coming out from Finland that have followed children from age eight into adulthood, and they have significant psychiatric problems found even their adulthood life, including suicidal attempts that are linked to what has happened early in life.

The problem with this correlation is that bullying is, as was said before, it's very prevalent across all different social settings and among all along the life span. So it's difficult to say if what happens in adulthood is absolutely linked to what happened in childhood and adolescence and/or ongoing situations that may be happening in adulthood at the workplace, for instance, in the home, and in other social settings.

COX: Were you able to hear the caller we had a few moments ago who said that she had gotten another bullying message from via Facebook?

Dr. SRABSTEIN: Yes, I did, and that's very unusual. That adds another wrinkle. This time I thought that I had heard probably all the different ranges of possibilities, and this is the first time I hear something like this.

COX: Let me ask a question of you from a couple of our listeners. Jenna, I'm going to come back to you. So just stay right there.

What should we tell our children if we feel that they may be bullied? I was bullied all through middle school for my skin color. I am a dark-skinned black female, and therefore my children have a dark complexion. My son came home yesterday from school saying that the kids at school were calling him names because of his complexion. This is from Latoya(ph). What do you say to her?

Dr. SRABSTEIN: Yeah, the advice would be the following: Number one, not to fight back, immediately to turn to an adult, the parents in this case, and through the parents to the principal and the school counselor. Hopefully the person that is reporting this is in a state that has already enacted anti-bullying prevention public policies. And the school should protect the victim while not chastising the perpetrator.

The perpetrator or perpetrators should be advised and counseled about the seriousness of their actions. And if that doesn't stop, eventually the perpetrators' parents should be advised to consult with health professionals so they can be helped to stop this serious form of mistreatment.

COX: I would imagine, Doctor, that there is a great deal of anger that is eventually built up on the part of those people who have been bullied. And to that end, I'd like to take this question and get your response to it.

It comes from Liz(ph) in Wilmington, North Carolina. Liz, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LIZ (Caller): Hi, yes, thank you for taking my call. I was up until third grade, I was bullied. And when I came back to the same elementary school in the fourth grade, it was as though I came back with a vengeance.

And I went and fought all the bullies that were there and everybody who picked on everybody else. I would fight with them and I got in trouble all the time for fighting in school.

And I think when I went into high school, I didn't lose that. I was aggressive and I became very defensive and I would bully people. And I didn't realize it at the time that I was bullying people. I thought I was fighting all the bad guys.

And I realize now, even to this day as an adult, that I have a very critical and aggressive personality towards people, all the successful people. I feel like they've bullied people to become successful, and all the people who are not successful, I feel like they're the victims, they're the ones who got bullied.

And I feel I realize now, listening to the show, that's probably where it came from.

COX: Liz, thank you very much for that. What about that? Is that a common reaction, doctor?

Dr. SRABSTEIN: Yeah, first of all, I'm very sorry to hear. That is a very common situation. And many of the perpetrators have been bullied before. And then you have the situation of people that, as I said before, are both victims and perpetrators, and they suffer the most.

Basically what happens, it sensitizes the brain in such a way that causes post-traumatic stress disorder. And all the irritability and the depression and the sleeping difficulties and the headaches and the stomach aches are part of the post-traumatic stress disorder.

And eventually the person may be exposed to very minor things that may not qualify the definition of bullying but in the eye of the beholder that's sensed as bullying. And the person re-experiences all the situations that have been done before. And the body is constantly on the alert for something else that may be happening.

COX: All right, Doctor. This is, perhaps, the other extreme, someone who doesn't necessarily go to anger but deals with it in another way. This is Lucille(ph), joining us from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Lucille, welcome, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

LUCILLE (Caller): Thank you. Yeah, I was pretty intensely emotionally bullied, and actually what you were saying, the woman, the girl who was sort of responsible for it was actually in a friendship group. And she very specifically pushed the others to bully others. So it was like a hierarchy of bullying.

And I refused to participate in that and ended up being on the bottom of that pecking order. But then I developed, like, depression, anxiety. I became suicidal. I had every day was hell at school. And I ended up really reflecting on that and getting into better situations and became a psychologist and ended up doing some research on bullying and the effects of it.

But I think that phenomena, where there's actually, in female groups, the social bullying in terms of power and maintaining power is an interesting thing.

COX: Thank you very much for the call. Doctor, I know that you can't stay with us very much longer, but would you like to respond to that?

Dr. SRABSTEIN: Yes, it happens in different modalities. First of all, we need to keep in mind that people that are not directly bullied, but they witness their friends being bullied, may also suffer from the same type of morbidity and potential mortality for several reasons one, because it may reawaken previous experiences that they may have had and/or because they may make them anxious and they are wondering when the next shoe is going to drop, and they may be bullied themselves.

COX: Dr. Jorge Srabstein is the medical director in the Clinic for Health Problems Related to Bullying at the Children's National Medical Center. He joined us from his office here in the Maryland area. Doctor, thank you very much.

Dr. SRABSTEIN: Thank you, sir.

COX: Jenna, are you still with us?

Ms. RUSSELL: I am.

COX: Did you, as you were listening to some of these callers - and we're going to take a few more in a minute, and I have an email to read as well - is this representative of what you found out with the over a hundred people that you talked to as part of the series?

Ms. RUSSELL: I think your last caller raised an interesting point because I think that people tend to probably associate bullying more with boys. They tend to focus on the physical element.

I've looked a little bit at the differences between boys and girls, more in adolescence, looking at some research done at a research center at Bridgewater State College, and they've looked at this. And girls I wrote a story. The first story in our series was about the experience of a 14-year-old girl in the Boston suburbs who was bullied during her freshman year of high school. And what happened with her was really very disturbing.

Girls' bullying, as I understand it, tends to be more verbal. They will attack former friends. They often focus on looks. And there's oftentimes a sexual element, in which the girls who are bullied will be labeled as sluts and put down in that way.

Boys' friendships, from what I understand, tend to be less volatile, and the bullying does tend to be more physical. But I think that that's an important thing that people are starting to pay attention to.

COX: Let's take another caller. This is Ted from Kansas City, Missouri. Ted, welcome. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

TED (Caller): Thank you very much. Appreciate being on the show. This subject is near and dear to my heart. I'll tell you my story quickly and then get to the point.

I was sickly as a child, I had asthma, and I was an easy target all the way through eighth grade. And I noticed, because our schools were mixed, that no one ever bothered the football players, ever. Because they knew if they did, there would be retaliation in a large form. So I went out for football and the seniors tried to knock me out of the team the entire year, see if I was tough enough. And I stuck it out and my self-esteem soared.

But the reason I did it was I never felt protected. I felt that the administrators and the teachers, they knew what was going on. It was obvious who the bullies were and what they were doing. And it seemed like they didn't want and do anything about it or they weren't able to. Maybe they were afraid of them themselves. And could you address that? And I'll get off and listen.

COX: Ted, that's a really interesting question. Thank you for calling. And what about that, because this bullying, although sometimes it takes place out of the sight of supervisors or adults, a lot of times it doesn't.

Ms. RUSSELL: This is a really important point that I've heard again and again from people who were bullied, that it - not only was it the bullying that hurt them, but it was what they perceived as the indifference of the adults who were supposed to be in charge.

And my story on Sunday featured one young man, who his most vivid memory of the bullying is a day that he was being beaten up on the floor of the gym at his high school, and he looked up in the midst of being punched and hit and he saw the gym teacher watching what was happening, just shaking his head with a disgusted look as if to say, oh, why can't you stick up for yourself? And this, I think, you know, I believe this is probably as damaging as what goes on between peers.

COX: Let me read two emails and then we'll take a call from Hopewell, Ohio. This first email is from Bob in Iowa: I, being an Asian American, had been bullied throughout all of my childhood and young adulthood. It has made me socially awkward. I have never returned to the small high school from which I graduated for reunions because of the bullying. When I was in school, teachers nor principals ever stepped in.

Here's another. This is from Sharon. And there are so many emails in my hand, I just can't - we won't be able to get to all of them, but we'll get to as many as we can. I was bullied as a child. I developed a submissive personality to survive. This is from Sharon. I can't help but think that this led to my marriage to someone who was an overbearing, violent spouse. He tried to kill me twice. After 25 years of marriage, and thankfully after four years of counseling, I found the courage to leave. Today, at age 55, I am proud to say I am finally my own person. I am no longer afraid.

Let's take this call from Hopewell, Ohio. George, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

GEORGE (Caller): Yes.

COX: Hello, George. Welcome.

GEORGE: Yes, sir. And welcome.

COX: George, did we lose you? I'm afraid we lost George, unfortunately. All right, let's move on to Green Bay, Wisconsin. This is Greg. Greg, welcome. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

GREG (Caller): Hi there. I was wondering if anybody's done any reporting or analysis of bullying in business. You know, as these kids get out of high school, they go into careers. I was bullied in high school, got into the workplace and had a lot of wonderful workplace experiences. And then, oh, in the last 10, 15 years I started noticing people getting ahead, not by competing, not by trying to be the best, but by bringing everybody else down. And, unfortunately, it becomes a culture. So that becomes a predominant way like, you know, the wild kingdom or something, you know, the best survive. And that's their intent - their interpretation of how to get ahead in business.

COX: Greg, thank you very much for that. Let me say we're talking about the long-term effects of bullying on the victims. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Jenna Russell, you followed these people and their stories. Did you find that people who were bullied as children were continued or continue to be bullied as they went into the workplace and adulthood?

Ms. RUSSELL: You know, I found an interesting mix of responses. I definitely talked to people who felt that they continue to let themselves be the victim. I spoke with one man who just told me he had never been able to learn how to stick up for himself, that he was constantly letting people roll right over him. And his friends would say, why do you let people do this to you? And he didn't know how to answer. It was like a skill he had never been able to learn.

But I also spoke to people who had almost the reverse reaction, a man who said his years of bullying instilled in him this just flash rage that would suddenly appear at the slightest provocation. If he felt like someone was insulting him or disrespecting him, he could barely contain himself from lashing out and hitting them.

And so I think it manifest itself in a variety of ways. But I have certainly heard a lot lately about workplace bullying.

COX: Here's an email that I'd like to read to you as we bring this very interesting and in points troubling conversation to a close: Thank you for doing this story. My hand is shaking writing this email. It comes from Ken in Oakland, California.

It amazes me that some people still strike a get-over-it attitude in regard to bullying. I'm a 38-year-old gay man who was bullied relentlessly throughout my childhood, verbally and physically, in both school and community settings. It has taken me years working with therapists to be able to revisit those memories, much less understand links from those experiences to my choices and behaviors as an adult. I am now better able to understand why I have been such an angry person and how I have taken that anger out on myself in unhealthy and destructive ways, and a little more about why I shut down when faced with emotionally tough situations.

For years I was stumped as to why, when I tried to make healthier choices, I found I just didn't care enough about myself to do so. For years I had literally shut out many memories before the age of 16.

We have run out of time, Jenna Russell, to talk about this any further. Will you be doing more?

Ms. RUSSELL: We will. We'll have more stories coming out in our series before the end of the year.

COX: Thank you so much for coming on. Jenna Russell is a reporter for the Boston Globe. She has been reporting on a series of articles on bullying and its impact on students, on families and on schools. There is a link to the series on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us from WBUR, our member station in Boston. Again, Jenna, thank you very much.

Ms. RUSSELL: Thank you.

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