A study published in The Lancet Psychiatry reveals that children who have been bullied by their peers suffered significant mental health problems as adults. The long-term research showed that bullying resulted in even more significant mental health problems than children who were mistreated by parents or caregivers, writes Nicole Makris for Healthline.
Professor Dieter Wolke, University of Warwick department of psychology, the author of the study, defined mistreatment by adults as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
Bullying is defined as repeated aggression by peers including physical attacks, verbal taunts, or social exclusion, taking place at least once a week. In the study, two groups of children were followed, one group from the UK and one from the US, from childhood into adulthood. Maltreatment and bullying in childhood correlated to mental health problems in adulthood.
Children living in the UK experienced higher rates of anxiety from being bullied than did those who were treated badly by adults. In the US, bullied children exhibited higher rates of depression and suicidal tendencies than children who had been mistreated by adults. Children who were mistreated and bullied in both groups were more likely to suffer from mental health problems.
"The strength of our study is that we found similar findings on the effects of bullying on adult mental health in both cohorts, despite their differences in population," Wolke said.
The study showed that 30% of the children in the UK group and 16% in the US group reported bullying. Also, 7% of UK children and 10% of US children reported both bullying and mistreatment.
"Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up; it has serious long-term consequences," said Wolke.
About 16,000 children in the UK do not return to school because they are routinely bullied, and their academic achievement is affected. Bullied children may suffer serious illness, inability to focus in the classroom, unhealthy social relationships, and may even have difficulties holding down a job as adults.
"Self-harm — such as poisoning, cutting, and suicide attempts — can have both serious physical and mental consequences and ultimately lead to premature mortality," Wolke said.
During the study, the researchers controlled for gender, family instability or adversity, socioeconomic status, and other factors that might alter the link between maltreatment and mental health, writes the Los Angeles Times' Karen Kaplan. About 40% of kids from both groups who were mistreated by adults were also bullied by other kids, for reasons that are unclear. Perhaps, kids with a history of abuse have a harder time regulating their emotions, which in turn might make them more vulnerable to being bullied.
The US research included more than 1,200 participants, while the UK study involved more than 4,000 kids and parents, according to Reuters. The research relied on interviews with parents in order to establish and track abuse in the younger children. Older children were asked to report any bullying they experienced.
The study did not explore the seriousness of the abuse or the age at which the abuse began, and researchers note that the abuse by parents was probably underreported on the questionnaires given to the moms and dads.
Catherine Bradshaw, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence in Baltimore, who was not involved in the study, says parents need to teach good communication and conflict resolution skills before children are of school age. Then schools should help reinforce these skills by creating a sense of community and an environment where students feel connected to one another and to teachers and other adults.
"Schools often become the outlets where bullying comes to a head," Bradshaw said. "Creating a sense of belonging has been consistently shown to be a protective factor as have programs that improve the school climate."