Children with chronic medical and developmental issues are more likely to have anxiety or depression from ostracism and bullying than from the challenges of their conditions, a recent MUSC study shows.
In an unpublished study of 109 8- to 17-year-old children with special needs, researchers found that being bullied or ignored by peers was the strongest predictor of symptoms of depression or anxiety.
“Despite all the many challenges these children face in relation to their chronic diagnoses, being bullied or excluded by their peers was the factor most likely to predict whether or not they reported symptoms of depression,” said Dr. Margee McKenna, the study’s primary investigator.
Dr. Conway Saylor, a professor of psychology at The Citadel who also was involved in the research, said the impact of bullying and ostracism on depression is “more substantial than just the illness itself.”
McKenna, a fellow in MUSC’s pediatrics department, said vague symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches can be signs of anxiety or depression.
“One of our messages is: If a child comes in for a general visit and has these symptoms, don’t forget to ask what’s going on at school,” she said.
She said teachers also should increase their vigilance of bullying of children with special needs.
South Carolina law requires school districts statewide to have official plans for addressing bullying, said Bob Stevens, director of prevention and intervention services for the Charleston County School District.
Local efforts have included establishing hotlines where students and guardians can report bullying, Stevens said.
“We try to create a schoolwide climate that not only addresses the kids who are bullied, but also bullies and bystanders — make it so bullies get no payoff from being bullies,” he said.
The MUSC study’s participants — children with conditions that included attention- deficit hyperactivity disorder, cystic fibrosis, diabetes and sickle cell disease — were recruited in 2010 and 2011 during routine checkups at MUSC.
The children and their guardians completed questionnaires that screened for symptoms of anxiety and depression. The surveys asked about how often the children feel sad and how many friends they have.
McKenna’s study is part of a five-year bullying research project at MUSC.
Reach Renee Dudley at 937-5550 or on Twitter @renee_dudley.