UK researchers from the University of Warwick, in association with colleagues at the University of Bristol, discovered that being bullied at primary school age can cause enough distress to significantly increase the risk of self-harming in later adolescence.
Researchers followed almost 5,000 participants in the “Children of the 90s” study, assessing participants for exposure to bullying between 7 and 10 years of age. Investigators then later asked whether they had engaged in self-harm at 16 to 17.
Self-harm behaviors may stem from a desire to relieve tension or communicate stress, and in the most extreme cases may represent a suicidal intent in the individual.
The study found that 16.5 percent of 16-17 year olds had self-harmed in the previous year, and 27 percent of these did so because they felt as though they “wanted to die.”
Those who were subjected to chronic bullying over a number of years at primary school were nearly five times more likely to self-harm six to seven years later in adolescence.
This sequence of events is explained by Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick,
“It is further evidence for doing away with the myth that bullying at a young age can be viewed as a harmless rite of passage,” said researcher Dr. Dieter Wolke.
“I’d like to see clinicians routinely asking children about bullying – from name calling to more physical acts of abuse. The importance of this early intervention should not be understated. If we were able to eliminate bullying, while other exposures remained constant, there would be a potential to prevent 20 percent of all self-harm cases.”
Researchers believe that dealing with bullying at an early age can reduce suffering for the individual as well as the long-term costs for society.
The research, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, carefully controlled for previous exposure to an adverse family environment; such as domestic violence, parental style or existing childhood mental health problems.
With such controls in place, the outcomes of the study can be used to help identify clear links between being bullied at a young age and self-harm in teenage years; whether that be through an increased risk of depression or by exacerbating the effects of a harmful family environment.
The results also showed that girls were, overall, more likely to engage in self-harm and develop depressive symptoms.
This supports the common belief that girls are roughly twice as likely to experience problems of this nature, particularly where that means turning their distress inwards, that is, to self-harm.
“Many children suffer in silence and never speak out about being bullied,” Wolke said.
“While bullying also increases the risk of depression, many adolescents in our study self-harmed without being depressed – so it is important that when children or adolescents show signs of self-harm or indications of non-specific symptoms (such as recurrent headaches, stomach aches, avoidance to go to school), we consider bullying as a possible cause and provide them with support.”
Source: University of Warwick