The consequences of being bullied in childhood may persist at least until middle age, taking an emotional toll and affecting multiple areas of life.
Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London, conducted a study that followed 8,000 individuals for up to 50 years to assess the ramifications of childhood bullying victimization into adulthood. They reported their findings April 18 in AJP in Advance.
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“This large-scale, longitudinal study documents the persistent and pervasive detrimental effects of childhood bullying,” commented David Fassler, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont and a child and adolescent psychiatrist, who was not involved with the study.
“Despite increased awareness and the widespread implementation of school-based prevention programs, bullying remains a common experience for many young people,” he told Psychiatric News, “with recent surveys indicating that as many as half of all children and adolescents are bullied at some time during their school years—and at least 10 percent being bullied on a regular basis.”
According to the new study, relatively little is known about the long-term impact of bullying. Previous studies have assessed the impact of being the victim of childhood bullying into early adulthood—ages 18 to 25—but none have shown how being bullied during a person’s formative years can affect mental health in middle adulthood.
To assess the consequences of childhood bullying victimization on midlife mental wellness, the researchers collected data from the British National Child Development Study, which has been following the lives of all children born in England, Scotland, and Wales during one week in 1958. The researchers analyzed information obtained from those individuals—along with information reported by their parents—concerning bullying exposures between ages 7 and 11. Follow-up assessments of participants were conducted between ages 23 and 50.
The results showed that childhood bullying was relatively common among this population in the 1960s, with 28 percent of the participants having been victimized by bullying and 15 percent having been exposed to frequent bullying.
Moreover, the sequelae were long-lasting for many of those on the receiving end of the bullying. Victims of childhood bullying had higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation at age 45, for example, compared with those who were not bullied. In addition, victims of childhood bullying were less likely to be living with a partner and have social relationships and were more likely to endure economic hardships, have a poor perceived quality of life, and self-report poor cognitive functioning at age 50.
The authors noted that the findings “emphasize the importance of gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the persistence and pervasiveness of the impact of childhood bullying victimization,” adding that these findings “suggest that intervention efforts should aim to minimize poor health outcomes in young victims of bullying.”
Stuart Twemlow, M.D., a retired professor of psychiatry at the Menninger Clinic at Baylor College of Medicine and an expert on bullying, agreed. “These results are straightforward and are fully expected as it relates to any type of childhood traumatization.” Twemlow said that more psychiatrists need to address bullying behavior, which often has its origins in school settings.
“Psychiatrists need to have a more active role in school issues,” Twemlow told Psychiatric News. “Psychiatrists need to be willing to sit down with schools and help to manage the extraordinary amounts of victimization indicated by the current studies. British schools represented in this study are no different from the schools in the U.S. when it pertains to this issue.”
Because previous research has shown childhood bullying to negatively affect scholastic performance and coping skills into early adulthood, Twemlow stated that psychiatrists need to talk to all patients—no matter their age—about childhood bullying. Failure to do so, he said, “is a tragedy.”
Twemlow concluded that because psychiatrists have a knowledge of the mind and body, as well as knowledge of the responsibilities of being a health care professional, “psychiatrists are in a unique position to help parents and schools tackle this major mental health issue.” ■