Bullying leaves scars into middle age

Children who are bullied continue to suffer the psychological impacts decades later, experiencing increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicide in tests given in mid-life, according to a new study by British researchers.

File: Buttons made by members of the Guardian Eagles anti-bullying club at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, in Manassas, VA. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
File: Buttons made by members of the Guardian Eagles anti-bullying club at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, in Manassas, Va.. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Being bullied at the age of 7 and 11 also was associated with personal feelings of poor general health at age 23 and 50, and with poor cognitive functioning at age 50, according to the study in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Bullied children did not, however, show higher rates of alcohol dependence in mid-life.

"Being bullied in childhood retains associations with poor mental, physical and cognitive health outcomes at least to middle adulthood, 40 years after exposure," the researchers, led by Ryu Takizawa, a Newton International Fellow, wrote. "The effects were small but similar to those of other forms of childhood hardship."

The effects of bullying on the mental health of children and adolescents have become well known, especially in the light of mass casualty violence, attributed to bullied teens, such as the pair who carried out the Columbine massacre. But the authors said they knew of no other study that looked at effects beyond early adulthood.

They used surveys conducted over 50 years, looking at children who said they were bullied occasionally or frequently at 7 and 11, and comparing the impact at ages 23, 45 and 50. They found that 28 percent of the 7,771 people in the study said they were occasionally bullied and 15 percent had been frequently bullied.

Bullying victims most often were male and had parents in manual jobs who were not highly involved in their lives. Often they were in public care, or cared for by people other than their parents. Bullied children were more likely to be unemployed and to feel socially isolated.

They raised the possibility that "bullying victimization generates further abuse from peers or adults, forming the first stage in a cycle of victimization that perpetuates itself over time and across situations."

 

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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Lenny Bernstein · April 21