According to a new study, childhood bullying may impact mental health in adulthood to a greater extent than child abuse. The study was published online on April 28 in the journal Lancet Psychiatry by researchers in the United States and United Kingdom
The study authors note that bullying is characterized by repetitive aggressive behavior engaged in by an individual or peer group with more power than the victim. It is a global issue; a review of data from 38 nations or regions found that one in three children report being bullied. Similar to child abuse, being bullied is reported can have adverse effects, including physical or mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, an increased risk of self-harm, and attempt or completion of suicide. Recent studies have documented that being bullied can modify stress responses or lead to long-term increases in inflammatory processes. These effects on health and employment can persist into early adulthood and even midlife.
For the study, the researchers reviewed data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the UK (ALSPAC) and the Great Smoky Mountains Study in the USA (GSMS). In ALSPAC, child abuse was evaluated as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, or severe maladaptive parenting (or both) between ages 8 weeks and 8.6 years, as reported by the mother in questionnaires, and being bullied was measured with child reports. In GSMS, both maltreatment and bullying were repeatedly examined with annual parent and child interviews between ages 9 and 16 years. Statistical analysis was used to determine the relationship between child abuse, being bullied, and mental health problems.
The study group comprised 4026 children from ALSPAC and 1420 children from GSMS. Compared with children who were not abused or bullied, children in GSMS who were only abused were at increased risk for depression in young adulthood. In both groups, children who were only being abused were not at increased risk for any mental health problem compared to children who were not maltreated or bullied. In contrast, children who were both abused and bullied were at increased risk for overall mental health problems, anxiety, and depression. Children who were bullied by peers only were more likely than children who were abused only to have mental health problems in both groups.
The authors concluded that being bullied by peers in childhood had greater long-term adverse effects on young adults’ mental health. They noted that their findings have important implications for public health planning and service development for dealing with peer bullying.