Chicken or egg? Depression or bullying? Which comes first?

When I was bullied for a short time in fifth grade, I felt anxious and hurt, but not depressed. It was over too quickly. But if the bullying had continued for weeks, or months, or, as with the case for some children, for years, no doubt I would have fallen into the dark pit of despair.

Or would I? The connection between depression and bullying appears to be a tangled knot of cause and effect.

It seems logical that children who are ostracized by their peers and bullied will become depressed. Now new research suggests that the reverse might be true: a child who appears depressed is more likely to be bullied. If a child appears to have low energy, is socially withdrawn or passive, cries excessively, or views himself negatively, all signs of depression, all behaviors which might make others less likely to hang around them, that child is more likely to become a target. This appears to be particularly true for fourth graders.

Acting depressed is similar to submissive behavior in the animal world, where animals who are lower in the hierarchy are picked on, such as the chickens I described in my post “Animal Bullies.” And bullying reflects the dominant behavior of higher-order animals in the hierarchy, such as that of the monk seal in the same post.

So children suffering from depression show visible signs of having a lower status, which attracts the attention of bullies, who choose weak victims who won’t fight back. “Bullies target youth who are unlikely to fight back,” according to Karen P. Kochel, Ph.D., an assistant research professor at Arizona State University, in Phoenix. “Youth who are depressed really have the potential to appear vulnerable, and are easy marks for victimization, unfortunately.”  So with the depression comes bullying, which, in turn, can likely increase the depression.

The message seems to be that parents and teachers need to be observant of a child’s emotional state, particularly around the fourth grade. Since a child who appears depressed has a better chance of being bullied, it’s important for that child to receive treatment before the bullies zero in on him or her. Learning how to socialize more effectively should help. What might help most, though, according to Dr. Kochel, is having a friend. “Even just having one good friend can really be a buffer against victimization—or depression, for that matter,” she says. “If kids are able to establish one solid friendship, that can be a real protective factor for them.”

A friend. So simple. So important. And for some children, especially one who is depressed, such a challenge.

If you were bullied, did you end up suffering from depression?

Or, did you suffer from depression and end up being bullied?

Chicken or egg? Depression or bullying? What comes first? Your opinion?

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