In a recent post, I explored the question of whether meds can help reduce bullying behavior in kids with psychiatric conditions, since they are more likely to bully peers than kids without such problems.
But research shows that kids with psychiatric problems are also more likely to be bullied – and that those who are bullied are at elevated risk of suffering from psychiatric disorders later on.
In my own research for my book on young adults who grew up taking psychiatric meds, I was struck that almost everyone I interviewed reported having been bullied during childhood or adolescence (some also reported bullying other kids).
So how does taking psychiatric meds affect the likelihood of kids being bullied? Do the drugs enhance kids’ self-esteem and behavior so that they’re less likely to be picked on? Or do kids get teased because they take meds?
To get a clear answer about what role medication plays, you’d have to randomly assign children with a particular psychiatric diagnosis to drug treatment or placebo – and then measure whether those taking meds were bullied more or less often or severely than those not taking them.
And, you’d have to measure what they were bullied about – the fact that they took medication, or some other perceived deficiency.
Unfortunately, as is the case for many topics related to the impact of psychiatric meds on children’s lives, these kinds of studies are lacking.
Still, researchers and doctors have turned up some interesting preliminary findings, especially regarding kids with ADHD – who studies have found have a higher likelihood of being picked on, probably due to their behavior problems. (One study found kids with the diagnosis were 10 times more likely to be picked on than those without).
One finding is that once social reputations are established in a child’s peer group, self-reinvention is tough, even if the original behaviors or social deficits that led to victimization are no longer present.
That suggests that interventions – including drug treatment – focusing on the child with the symptoms may be less effective than interventions aimed at the peer group in which the bullying is occurring.
As for whether taking medications makes kids targets? A few smaller studies interviewing kids about their experience of stigma, including bullying, suggest that although many children worry about being teased about their meds, they report that they’re more frequently victimized for “acting crazy” or for having a mental disorder diagnosis.
Ilina Singh, a UK-based academic who has done extensive interviewing of children with ADHD for a major, ongoing project about kids’ attitudes toward their conditions and their meds, found that was the case with a group of 9-to-14-year-olds she interviewed in depth.
And, as far as what actually troubled the kids most, Singh’s subjects reported being more upset by the fact that they’d been diagnosed with ADHD than the fact that they took medication for it.
In another article summarizing her research, Singh writes:
Children with ADHD frequently report being bullied at school. ‘They call me ‘mental’ and ‘sicko’ and ‘druggie’ (because of having to take medication for ADHD),’ says one boy. ‘I’ll start fighting them, but sometimes my friends hold me back. They know I’ll get into trouble for it.’ But the children don’t think teachers are aware of the bullying. When teachers do get involved, they say, they often blame the fighting on the child’s ADHD, rather than on the real source of the problem: the bullying.
Insofar as meds for ADHD help reduce impulsivity, including impulsive aggression, they may help kids who are teased or bullied resist the urge to fight back – and therefore help them avoid getting in trouble for fighting. But, as Singh notes, that doesn’t resolve the original problem: the bullying itself.
Other researchers have found that many kids are reluctant to disclose to peers the fact that they take medication, afraid that fact alone will incite more victimization. Whether or not that would actually happens remains difficult to pin down.
What do you think? Does your own experience – or that of your child or children you treat as a clinician – suggest that effective medication treatment can ward off bullying? Or are we expecting too much from a pill when the real interventions shouldn’t be with the victim, but with those doing the victimizing?