Bullying and the ACE Study

Girl with black eyes and fake happy face

“… you don’t have to wait for someone to treat you bad repeatedly. All it takes is once, and if they get away with it that once if they know they can treat you like that, then it sets the pattern for the future.” ― Jane Green

In 2007 I started to correlate the long-term effects of bullying on people with psychological and physiological issues they were having. My thesis for this idea was what I experienced myself as an adult that was bullied as a youth from ages six to ten. At the time of my research, there was little discussion or evidence to back up my belief in these long-term effects. But that has all changed.

The first change I noticed was when a new classification of PTSD was released in 2013 called Complex PTSD (C-PTSD). The National Center for PTSD describes Complex PTSD as long-term traumas where the victim is held captive either physically or emotionally by the perpetrator and unable to get away from the danger (“Complex PTSD – PTSD: National Center for PTSD,” 2016). This was the first discovery I made that backed up my theory that there are long-term effects on adults of youth bullying. The article goes on to talk about how C-PTSD can cause problems with:

  • Emotional Regulation – Persistent sadness, suicidality, anger, anxiety, and depression
  • Consciousness – The victim might try to forget the traumatic events, relive the events over and over or feel detached from their own mental processes.
  • Self-Esteem – Problems with feeling helpless, shame, guilt, stigma, and aloneness.
  • Distorted Perceptions of the Perpetrator – Becoming preoccupied and fearful of the perpetrator. Wanting to take revenge on the perpetrator. Allowing total power to the perpetrator.
  • Relationships – The survivor might isolate themselves, distrust all those around them or always be looking for someone to rescue them.
  • One’s Sense of Meaning – This can include a loss of faith and a sense of hopelessness and despair.

Yes, this study made clear the long-term issues associated with a survivor of bullying. If something isn’t done earlier in our lives, these results could move into our adult selves. But then, I recently discovered the study that those of us that pay attention to the long-term effects of bullying need to know. It’s the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study, done by the CDC and Kaiser (“Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs),” 2016). The ACE study surveyed over 17,000 adults regarding their childhood experiences and current health status and attitudes. The study looked at 10 areas in the respondents first eighteen years of life:

  1. Emotional Abuse
  2. Physical Abuse
  3. Sexual Abuse
  4. Abuse of the person’s mother
  5. Household substance abuse
  6. If someone in the household had a mental illness
  7. Parental separation or divorce
  8. If someone in the household went to prison
  9. Emotional neglect
  10. Physical neglect

If you want to see the survey questions asked, you can find them on the CDC site at: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html

What was discovered through the ACE Study is not only shocking but should be leading to major changes in how we deal with youth bullying and abuse.

  1. 6% of those surveyed suffered Emotional Abuse
  2. 3% of those surveyed suffered Physical Abuse
  3. 7% of those surveyed suffered Sexual Abuse
  4. 7% of those surveyed had mothers who were abused
  5. 9% of those surveyed had household substance abuse happening
  6. 4% of those surveyed had a household member with a mental illness
  7. 3% of those surveyed had parents that divorced or separated
  8. 7% of those surveyed had an incarcerated household member
  9. 8% of those surveyed dealt with emotional neglect
  10. 9% of those surveyed dealt with physical neglect

(“Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs),” 2016)

While all of the numbers are not staggeringly high, they are much higher than most would expect. That said, there is a more important part to the equation and study…how many of these items would a single person have? Here’s what was found out.

  • 0 = 36.1% of the surveyed
  • 1 = 26% of the surveyed
  • 2 = 15.9% of the surveyed
  • 3 = 9.5% of the surveyed
  • 4 or more = 12.5% of the surveyed

So why does this count matter? It matters because the resulting pyramid of issues is what the study found were problem areas for adults after these childhood traumas and without getting help. ACE PyramidThe higher the count the more likely the risk pyramid is that you have these issues if you do not seek help (“Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs),” 2016)

  1. Disrupted brain development, such as learning and work performance
  2. Social and emotional impairment, such as higher risk for partner violence, depression, STDs, poor friendships and relationships
  3. Risky behaviors, such as drug use, drinking, sexuality issues, smoking, financial stress
  4. Disease, Disability and Social Issues, such as early heart disease, depression, suicide attempts, liver disease, fetal death, stress, and liver disease

All that sounds pretty bad. So if you scored four or more on the ACE Study, there were definitely issues. But the last issue found is by far the scariest. It was found that those that did not get help died near 20 years earlier than others who didn’t suffer from these issues. (“Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs),” 2016)

20 years!

Now we are not just talking about bullying causing mental anguish. We are talking about it possibly being a part of you living 20 years less than you should. When I first read the study, I had to read it over and over as it was so hard to swallow. I looked for more scientific proof. Nurse, Lisa Zarnello (2018) found that these traumas caused changes in a child’s brain structure that have been seen by MRIs. People who scored four or greater have definite changes in their brains in the prefrontal cortex. So, this is science, not just some survey.

So now that you know (if you didn’t before), what do we do about it? In 2007, I didn’t know that this explosion of research and science would find real psychological and physiological damage. I just knew what it did to me and then discovered that others had the same story. Now, we must advocate for further research and change. If we cannot help young people early after traumatic experiences, like bullying, we are looking at a damaged adult who will not be the functioning productive member of society they should have been. I, for one, find this unacceptable and something we must advocate and change in our society. We can be better than this and we can help those that need it before the damage has gone on too long.

Read more about the ACE Study and ACE Pyramid graphic retrieved at: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html


Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). (2016, April 1). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html

Complex PTSD – PTSD: National Center for PTSD. (2016, February 2). Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/ptsd-overview/complex-ptsd.asp

Zarnello, L. (2018). The ACE effect: A case study of adverse childhood experiences. Nursing, 48(4), 46-54. doi:10.1097/01.NURSE.0000530408.46074.64

Top Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

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About Alan Eisenberg

Alan Eisenberg is a Certified Life Coach, Bullying Recovery activist and author of "A Ladder In The Dark: My journey from bullying to self-acceptance" and "Crossing the Line". He has been writing and speaking to various audiences about the issue of C-PTSD and Bullying Recovery. Mr. Eisenberg has been featured on several print, radio shows and podcasts on this issue, including NPR and in the Boston Globe. He is currently working toward his Master's Degree in Mental Health Counseling.
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