Children get over bullying, study shows

BMJ 2017; 359 doi: (Published 05 October 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;359:j4628
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. London

Children who are bullied are likely to develop symptoms of depression and anxiety, however these symptoms dissipate over time, a study has found.1

Exposure to bullying is already associated with poor mental health but establishing a direct detrimental effect has been difficult.

The study, in JAMA Psychiatry, used twins as a way of establishing a control group, accounting for shared environmental and genetic sources, and other mitigating factors.

Some 11 108 twins from the Twins Early Development Study were asked at ages 11 and 16 whether they had been exposed to physical or verbal bullying; social manipulation (for example, friends being taken away); or property attacks. The twins rated how often they experienced such events in a year.

The twins also filled in questionnaires about any mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, or hyperactivity, impulsivity, inattention, and conduct problems.

Researchers conducted three sets of analyses of the data: at the time of the exposure to bullying; two years afterwards; and five years afterwards. They found that as time elapsed participants who had been bullied were less likely to report symptoms of mental ill health.

Feelings of anxiety (β=0.27; 95% CI, 0.22 to 0.33) persisted for two years (β=0.12; 95% CI, 0.04 to 0.20) but not five years. Paranoid thoughts and cognitive disorganisation persisted for five years, the study found.

The study authors wrote, “This pattern of findings highlights the potential for resilience in children exposed to bullying. Consequently, a more hopeful message can be delivered to children and families, acknowledging the suffering endured by children being bullied while supporting resilience process on their path to recovery.”

However, the authors said that while their study showed the resilience of children and young people it was still important to prevent bullying in the first place.

Commenting on the study Michael Bloomfield, clinical lecturer in general psychiatry at University College London, said: “This study adds weight to the growing body of research showing that adverse experiences in childhood, including bullying, causally increase the risk of mental illnesses. Despite this research we still don’t properly understand the mechanisms underlying this increase in vulnerability associated with all forms of childhood maltreatment and trauma. It is essential that we urgently investigate how these adverse experiences alter brain function to give rise to symptoms of mental illness.”

Bernadka Dubicka, chair of child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that the study confirmed what many people already know about the links between bullying and mental ill health. She added, “The good news is that some young people will recover from their difficulties, however it is vital that schools have whole school bullying approaches to help tackle this problem, and also that we can provide adequate mental health services to support young people when they are in distress.”


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