Bullying during childhood can have lasting effects into adulthood, according to a new study from Finland. The research, published online Dec. 9 in JAMA Psychiatry, found that children who were frequently bullied when they were 8 years old were at high risk for mental health issues that required treatment as young adults.
“I think this is an important finding which should be taken seriously,” lead author Andre Sourander, MD, PhD, a professor of child psychiatry at the University of Turku in Finland, told Reuters Health.
Previous studies have shown that bullying and being bullied are associated with a higher risk of having mental problems such as depression, low self-esteem, poor school performance and even suicide during childhood. However, little is known about the long-term effects of childhood bullying and being bullied on adults.
In the largest study to date to investigate bullying among young children, Sourander and his colleagues examined associations between bullying-related incidents at age 8 and mental health problems by age 29. The study used data on 5,034 Finnish kids based on information provided by the children, their parents and their teachers. Data on services to treat mental health issues in patients ages 16 to 29 were derived from a nationwide hospital registry of all inpatient and outpatient mental health visits in Finland.
The researchers found that 90 percent of the children in the study were not involved in bullying. Among this group, 12 percent went on to be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder before they turned 30.
However, 20 percent of those who were childhood bullies had mental health issues that required treatment as a teen or young adult. Of those kids who were frequently bullied, 23 percent were treated for psychiatric problems by the time they were 29.
The 8-year-olds who were bullies and who were the frequent target of bullying had the worst outcomes. Among this group, 31 percent had mental health issues that required treatment. They also had the highest rates of depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and substance abuse.
Findings showed that most of the bullies in the study were boys and that being a bully was specifically linked to later psychiatric problems if there were already detectable symptoms of disorders. The authors wrote that being a bully “serves as an important red flag” that the child needs intervention to prevent future long-term problems.
One expert who was not involved in the study agreed. The study is “converging with some other findings in the field that there are some very important mental health concerns that are linked to bullying,” Catherine Bradshaw, PhD, an expert on bullying from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and Deputy Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, told Reuters Health.
Matthew Lorber, MD, acting director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told HealthDay that schools and parents need to stop bullying before it starts. “We need to increase our anti-bullying campaigns, especially in elementary school.”
Lorber, who was not involved in the study, has treated kids suffering from depression, cutting themselves or having panic attacks because of bullying. “A victim of bullying is as victim of trauma because it is traumatic,” Lorber said.
Sourander concurred, writing in an e-mail to Reuters Health, “We need to understand how important early peer and school experiences are for children. We should integrate school mental health perspective to anti-bully campaigns. Early intervention can prevent long-term consequences.”