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Bullying Can Trigger Anxiety, Depression in Students with Disabilities

A new study concludes that young people, already burdened with chronic medical conditions or developmental disabilities, are at risk for anxiety and depression if they are excluded, ignored or bullied by their peers.

The patients in the study had conditions including ADHD, cystic fibrosis, type 1 or 2 diabetes, sickle cell disease, obesity, a learning disability, autism, and short stature.

The researchers found that being bullied and/or excluded by peers were the strongest predictors of increased symptoms of depression or anxiety in the young patients.

"What is notable about these findings is that despite all the many challenges these children face in relation to their chronic medical or developmental diagnosis, being bullied or excluded by their peers were the factors most likely to predict whether or not they reported symptoms of depression," study leader Dr. Margaret Ellis McKenna, a senior fellow in developmental-behavioral pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina.

The small study, of 109 youths ages 8 to 17, recruited subjects during routine visits to a children's hospital. Patients and their parents completed questionnaires that screen for symptoms of anxiety and depression, and students were also asked about bullying or exclusion by peers.

"Professionals need to be particularly alert in screening for the presence of being bullied or ostracized in this already-vulnerable group of students," McKenna said.

Several organizations have tried to emphasize the need for special attention to prevention of bullying of students with disabilities. Early results from another study found that children with autism are more likely to be bullied than their siblings without the disorder.

McKenna said schools should have clear policies to prevent and address bullying and exclusion, as well as programs that promote a culture of inclusion and a sense of belonging for all students.

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