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David Baxter PhD

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Abuse Hurts Bystanders, Too
Friday, December 17, 2004
By Brunilda Nazario, MD, WebMD Medical News

Witnessing Abuse to Others Can Leave Psychological Scars, Say Experts

People who witness repeated abuse can have serious psychological scars, researchers say.

Victims are understandably more affected, since they bear the direct brunt of abuse. But firsthand witnesses may also suffer, say Gregory Janson of Ohio University, and Richard Hazler of The Pennsylvania State University.

Janson and Hazler are studying the effects of repeated abuse on victims and bystanders. Their first report on the topic was published earlier this year in the journal Violence and Victims.

The team studied 77 college students, who were interviewed twice. In the first interview, participants were asked about their own experiences as victims of repetitive abuse. In the second, they discussed watching someone else suffer from repeated abuse.

Participants were encouraged to recall and describe the past abuse as vividly as possible. They were free to focus on any kind of abuse they had experienced or seen. Incidents included bullying, racism, homophobia, physical abuse, or sexual harassment. Some episodes were brief; others lasted for years.

The students also responded to statements about the abuse, such as, "I tried not to talk about it," "I felt angry and irritable," and "I had trouble falling asleep." Using a scale of 1-5, the researchers scored each person's responses.

For another perspective, participants' heart rates and sweating were monitored during the interviews. Those physical signs can reveal emotional distress.

Victims' scores approached the threshold used by the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment study to classify cases of posttraumatic stress disorder. Bystanders' scores were "comparable to the severe levels of stress" seen in survivors of natural disasters, say the researchers.

Abuse's effects can linger for a long time.

Victims and Bystanders Similarly Affected by Abuse
The study showed that victims and bystanders were similarly disturbed by past repetitive abuse. Victims were slightly more rattled by recalling past abuse, but the difference between the groups was small.

"Of course, the victim, who stands in the most immediate psychological and physical danger, suffers a greater level of distress than any bystander. However, our findings show that bystanders also experience moderate to severe psychological and physiological repercussions," Hazler says, in a news release. "After a time, based on the severity of the ordeal, the impact on victims and bystanders is no longer significantly different.

"Levels for both groups exceeded mean scores for police, firefighters, paramedics, and other first- responders following a severe earthquake," say the researchers.

That doesn't mean that being bullied is equivalent to experiencing combat or natural disasters. Instead, it suggests that people experience trauma differently.

It's not known how well the students functioned before the abuse. That could mean that they had been affected by other factors not mentioned in the study.

It's also possible for people to have scores like those seen in the study without experiencing distress or other problems, say the researchers. The main point is that bystanders may need help handling emotional and physical distress, they say.

SOURCES: Janson, G. Violence and Victims, April 2004; vol 19: pp 239-255. News release, The Pennsylvania State University.
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