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Witnesses to Abuse Suffer as Well

They can feel stress comparable to victims, study finds

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 22, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- People who witness repeated physical or mental abuse suffered by others can experience levels of psychological and physiological stress comparable to that of the abuse victims.

That's the finding of a Penn State study in the current issue of Violence and Victims.

Study co-author Dr. Richard J. Hazler, an associate professor of counselor education, said that watching other people being assaulted, bullied or sexually harassed is not a neutral event for bystanders.

"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 said in a prepared statement.

"After a time, based on the severity of the ordeal, the impact on the victim and bystanders is no longer significantly different," he added.

The study included 77 college students who were interviewed about their experiences as both victims and bystanders in instances of repetitive abuse such as bullying, racism, homophobia, sexual harassment, and corporal punishment by parents, teachers or other authority figures.

As the students recounted the incidents, their psychological and physiological responses were recorded by the researchers.

"Both perspiration levels and heart rate showed a progressively elevated pattern across interview periods as study participants started talking about specific incidents of abuse," Hazler said. "Overall increases in physiological reactivity for victim and bystander experiences pointed to elevated emotional arousal when participants recalled past episodes of repetitive abuse."

He said memories of extreme abuse can actually trigger stress levels that are close to that of schizophrenic patients suffering a psychotic breakdown.

"This study was a first step in the next generation of research that is seeking clarity regarding both the short- and long-term psychological and physiological damage done by what are often seen as low-level forms of repetitive abuse," Hazler said.

More information

The Sidran Institute has information about psychological trauma.

SOURCE: Penn State, news release, Dec. 15, 2004
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