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Bullying affects mental health for years

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I still remember my middle-school bully: a girl about my height with glaring brown eyes whose locker was next to mine thanks to the alphabetical order of our last names. She was a 12-year-old stranger, but her first words to me were something along the lines of, “I hate you and want to smash your face.” She never did, but I feared her all through middle school, did my best to avoid her, and told my parents fairly frequently that I wanted to go live on a farm.

That was my first and only experience with bullying, and while I didn’t suffer any lingering health effects, many kids do, according to a study published last week in the journal Pediatrics.

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Researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and elsewhere followed nearly 4,300 children over a five-year period from fifth grade through 10th grade. They found that 30 percent of them had been bullied at some point, while those who experienced bullying on a weekly basis were more likely to be in poor mental health — depressed, angry, anxious, or sad — compared to those who were never bullied.

Not surprisingly, kids who experienced threatening behavior from their peers during the entire study were the worst off. Nearly 45 percent of this group had the worst mental health status compared with 31 percent of those who were currently being bullied, and 12 percent of those who had been victims only in the past. Only 7 percent of those who had never experienced bullying had poor psychological health.

“Our finding clearly shows lingering effects from being bullied in the past, but the worst effect is when bullying is continuous and repeated over time,” said study leader Laura Bogart, a social psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Previous research suggests that certain kids are more likely to be bullied: those who are overweight, transgender, homosexual, physically disabled, or who have medical conditions such as peanut allergies or diabetes.

“Even when we ruled these conditions out as alternative explanations for poor emotional health, we still found strong effects from the bullying,” Bogart added.

Schools have increased efforts to combat bullying since Bogart and her colleagues first began their study in 2004. Anti-bullying legislation now exists in 49 states, including Massachusetts, which puts a legal responsibility on teachers and school administrators to stop and prevent the practice.

The 2010 suicide of Phoebe Prince — a 15-year-old Irish immigrant living in South Hadley who hanged herself after being persistently teased, threatened, and ridiculed by fellow students — sped up efforts by state legislators to pass an anti-bullying law.

What impact the law has had remains under debate. Researchers haven’t gathered recent data to determine whether bullying in state schools has declined since the law was passed. Schools also weren’t given any funding.

“It’s an unfunded mandate, which means districts have to do it by law, but some have more resources than others,” said Jodie Elgee, director of the counseling and intervention center for Boston Public Schools. “Our Boston school district had been training teachers and administrators before the law came out, but some school districts don’t even know where to begin.”

Last year, the City of Boston expanded its anti-bullying hot line to enable parents and students to report incidents not just by calling 617-592-2378, but also by sending a text message to 617-765-7125.

“We thought we’d be inundated with texts, but we haven’t received a single one,” Elgee said. “It’s pretty amazing, but it might be a good thing, a sign that kids are going home and talking to their parents who then call our hot line.” Hot line calls have been on the rise, she added, averaging about 300 to 400 per school year.

One of Boston Public Schools’ most successful anti-bullying programs: A free eight session skills-building program held on Saturday mornings for students who have been victimized by bullies, those who have been implicated in bullying, and peer leaders who may be able to step in and help stop victimization. (A bully and victim don’t attend the same counseling sessions.) “We have anecdotal evidence from students who report that the program resulted in a positive change in their behavior and how they’re treated,” Elgee said.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.

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