Bullying victimization and emotional distress: Is there strength in numbers for vulnerable youth?

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Objective: The present study examines whether the prevalence of vulnerable peers in school protects the emotional health of youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning (LGBQ), overweight, or have a disability, and if the adverse emotional effects of bullying victimization are mitigated by the presence of these peers. Methods: Survey data come from a large school-based sample of adolescents attending 505 schools. The primary independent variable was the percent of students in school with each vulnerability characteristic. Multilevel logistic regression models estimated the odds of internalizing problems, self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among students who were LGBQ, overweight or had a disability. Cross-level interaction terms were added to determine if the association between being victimized and emotional distress was moderated by the presence of vulnerable peers. Results: Greater presence of similar students was, on average, protective against emotional distress for LGBQ girls and overweight boys. In contrast, greater presence of students with a disability was, on average, a risk factor among girls with a disability. Several tests of effect modification indicated that odds of emotional distress for those who had been victimized were lower in schools with a higher proportion of vulnerable youth. Conclusions: The presence of a similar peer group may increase the likelihood that a bystander or witness to bullying will react in a helpful way. School personnel, health care providers and other youth service professionals should inquire about social relationships at school, including experiences of harassment and perceptions of peer support, to buffer negative experiences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13-19
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Psychosomatic Research
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study is funded by grant R40 MC 26815 (Marla Eisenberg, Principal Investigator) through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services , Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Research Program. Debanjana Chatterjee's time was supported by grant # T32HP22239 from a National Research Service Award (NRSA) in Primary Medical Care. Minnesota Student Survey data were provided by public school students in Minnesota via local public school districts and managed by the 2013 Minnesota Student Survey Interagency Team.


  • Adolescence
  • Disability
  • Mental health
  • Obesity
  • School health
  • Sexual orientation

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