Study Finds Bullying Affects Mental Health More Than Child Abuse

Suzanne Tucker via Shutterstock. Bullying causes long-lasting mental health damage, and does it frequently

Childhood bullying leaves scars so severe, a series of research papers demonstrate, that it may be worse than neglect and abuse at the hands of adults.

Schools that once turned a blind eye, or even claimed that suffering bullying “builds character,” are now starting to take bullying seriously. However, Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick thinks we still have a way to go to acknowledge the severity of the consequences and how long they can last.

Wolke combined data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) in the U.K. and the Great Smoky Mountain Study (GSMS) in the U.S. to provide a picture of how childhood experiences affected more than 5,000 young adults. Both studies began in the early 1990s.

Maltreatment was tracked for ALSPAC participants until they were almost nine, and then children were asked about bullying at age 8, 10 and 13 by postgraduate psychologists. When they reached 18, their mental health was assessed using standard surveys. In the GSMS, the participants' experiences were surveyed from 9-16, and then assessed between 19 and 25. The findings have been published in The Lancet Psychiatry

“The mental health outcomes we were looking for included anxiety, depression or suicidal tendencies,” said Wolke. “Our results showed those who were bullied were more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who were maltreated. Being both bullied and maltreated also increased the risk of overall mental health problems, anxiety and depression in both groups.”

Maltreatment was defined as “physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, or severe maladaptive parenting,” such as hitting or frequent shouting.

As the study notes, “Child maltreatment is a global issue and has been a matter of intense public concern in high-income countries for more than a century,” and is known to have serious physical and mental effects, while bullying has been relatively understudied. Yet on all measures, bullying had a greater effect, with GSMS participants who were bullied 4.9 times as likely to suffer anxiety as those who had been maltreated.

Unsurprisingly, bullying is more common than maltreatment, being reported by 36.7% of participants compared with 15.5% for maltreatment (7% reporting both). If the consequences are as severe as Wolke concludes, the contribution to mental illness is enormous.

“Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up; it has serious long-term consequences,” Wolke said. “It is important for schools, health services and other agencies to work together to reduce bullying and the adverse effects related to it.”

The work is the latest in a series of publications Wolke has authored using ALSPAC. Last year, he revealed in Pediatrics more immediate consequences, demonstrating that bullying by peers raises the risk of parasomnias such as nightmares and sleep walking. Chronic bullying was found to roughly double the likelihood of some parasomnias, and even short-term bullying showed a clear effect.

All studies controlled for the best-known preexisting factors that might affect both mental health outcomes and chances of being bullied.

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