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Study suggests ‘strong relationship’ between bullying and drug use, could help shape prevention strategies

CBC with Tracie Afifi 11 March 2018

A University of Manitoba study involving thousands of Manitoba students that looked at the connection between bullying and drug use is a starting point to develop better approaches to bullying prevention, researchers say.

The study, which reached out to more than 64,000 Manitoba students, suggests children who are bullied are also more likely to use drugs — although the nature of the relationship isn’t precisely clear.

“Of course, we can only say that there’s an association. But I think it’s also really important just to indicate that these associations are real. Bullying is increasing the likelihood of these other things happening,” said Tracie Afifi, an associate professor of community health science at the U of M.

“We can’t say it’s a causal relationship, but it’s not to say that studies that are unable to say that … are not useful and powerful, because they are.”

Afifi and other researchers at the school’s Child Maltreatment Research Team sent questionnaires to thousands of students at schools across the province.

The surveys, broken down by age and gender, asked questions about six different types of drugs — marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy, LSD and pharmaceuticals — and nine types of bullying, related to physical, verbal and digital experiences.

Participants were also asked about mental health issues to help understand various factors relating to drug use, added Sarah Turner, a research associate with the team.

“We found that there is a strong relationship between bullying victimization and illicit drug use,” Turner said.

The report measured that relationship in terms of increased likelihood of using illicit drugs, Afifi said.

​”In some cases the odds were quite high, like four times, five times, eight times, 15 times increased odds,” depending on age, gender, type of bullying and type of drug use, she said.

According to the report, the questionnaires were distributed in 2012 and 2013, with a response rate of roughly 67 per cent.

The peer-reviewed study was published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health earlier this year.

A coping mechanism?

The exact nature of the relationship is unclear, Turner said, and the report itself cautions against assuming a causal relationship from the cross-sectional study.

“Our study wasn’t able to look at why there was a link,” Turner said. “But one of the possible reasons is that bullying is a really challenging experience and so drug use might be a coping mechanism.”

Afifi said it’s difficult to study causality on issues like bullying.

“You can imagine that where we’re looking at things like bullying and drug use, you can’t design a study that would allow you to determine a causal effect, because that would be an experimental design, which of course wouldn’t be ethically feasible,” she said.

But the large sample size allowed the team to study the detail with a finer grit than previous reports, she added.

“We’re able to look at that fine detail that no other study has ever looked at before.”

Research a ‘1st step’

The findings suggest a “dose-response” relationship, Afifi said — that is, the more often people were bullied, the more likely they were to also use drugs.

They also indicate in some cases, the link between bullying and drug use is stronger among younger children, and shows itself differently between boys and girls, she added.

She said the findings have implications for bullying prevention in the province.

“What that means is because we found that the relationships were a little bit stronger in the younger grades, we actually should be probably starting prevention before Grade 7,” she said.

“Because we did see that bullying was a little bit different for boys and girls, that points us in the direction that maybe different strategies would be required for boys and girls.”

Afifi said the research is a “first step” in developing evidence-based bullying prevention strategies. That’s what her centre will task itself with next, she added.

“What we’re trying to do is really … figure out what are things that are risk factors, what are things that are protective factors, and develop those prevention strategies based on our data.”