In one of the few studies to examine bullying among African American youth, Kevin Fitzpatrick and colleagues identify risk and protective factors associated with symptoms of depression and point the way to further study.
'By removing race/ethnicity from the current analysis, we examined intra-racial behaviour among youth in a way unlike the majority of bullying research has over the past several decades,' the researchers wrote.
Furthermore, they concluded that the study 'has clearly helped to disentangle the effects of bullying behaviour on the mental health of an understudied population.'
In an article in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, Fitzpatrick and colleagues Akilah Dulin and Bettina Piko examined the relationship between symptoms of depression, group membership and risk and protection among African American youth. Their data came from surveys of 1,542 low-income African American youth from a heavily African American urban school district in Alabama.
The researchers noted the need for 'culturally sensitive, age-appropriate, and multi-faceted programs that recognise the link between exposure to violence and depressive symptoms.' Both exposure to violence and symptoms of depression have been linked to serious problems in school - absences, poor grades and dropping out - that have serious negative implications during adolescence and on into adulthood.
The researchers grouped students into four categories: bullies, victims, bully-victims and non-involved. The researchers found elevated levels of symptoms of depression among all four student groups as compared to national benchmarks. Among the youth in this study, the relationship between bullying and symptoms of depression varied across groups: 'While victims and victim-bullies self-reported more depressive symptoms than the non-bullied or non-victimised groups, bullies did not.'
Levels of depression among members of these groups were examined in relation to risk and protective factors that have been shown to affect mental health symptoms among youth. The researchers focused on individual risk factors, such as fighting or carrying a weapon to school, as well as the presence of violence or abuse in the home and safety at school.
Protective factors - which are more than just the absence of risk - include self-esteem at the individual level, a family life that offered both supervision and bonding, and a school in which the student felt connected.
'We tried to focus on the protective factors,' Fitzpatrick said. 'Sometimes, the risk factors are not something we can manipulate, so we work on what we can manipulate - protective factors - to improve outcomes.'
All of the examined risk factors contributed to the likelihood that students would report symptoms of depression. Youth who reported corporal punishment at home were more likely to report symptoms of depression.
Students who felt their school was unsafe reported more depression. When one protective factor was present - self esteem - the reports of depressive symptoms were reduced for all four student groups.
These results suggested several ways to strengthen protective factors in the schools, including establishing stronger, safer support networks within schools systems and recognising 'the importance of psychological resources in establishing resiliency in the face of risk.'
The researchers also looked at how the effects varied with gender and age. In general, it has been shown in past research that females and older adolescents show more symptoms of depression than males and younger adolescents.
Similarly, in this research, females reported higher levels of depression. However, in this study, once group membership was also considered, older adolescents did not show the expected elevated levels of depression. This result suggested the need for closer examination of the relationship between age and the risk and protective factors among African American youth.
Fitzpatrick is a professor of sociology and holds the Bernice Jones Chair in Community in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. Dulin is with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Piko is with the University of Szeged in Hungary.