May 1st, 2014

Bullied children at risk for worse mental, physical health

Long after bruises have healed, kids may be dealing with the effects of painful bullying experiences on their mental and physical health.

A new Boston Children’s Hospital study suggests children who are bullied are at risk for worse mental and physical health, greater depression symptoms and lower self-worth in the long term.

“It’s the first study to comprehensively look at bullying over time in this fashion, to really look at the compounding effects and the lingering effects,” says Laura Bogart, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.

“What we found is that continued bullying – bullying in more than one grade – is very painful for the child in terms of physical and mental health,” says Bogart, lead author of the study. Effects of bullying in a past grade linger on a student’s health, she says. “We did find the most striking effect was if a student was repeatedly bullied over multiple grades.”

More than 4,200 children in three cities were surveyed at three points, in fifth, seventh and tenth grades for the study, published online in February in the journal Pediatrics.

According to the study abstract, “Health was significantly worse for children with both past and present bullying experiences, followed by children with present-only experiences, children with past-only experiences and children with no experiences.

“For example, 44.6 percent of children bullied in both the past and present were at the lowest decile of psychosocial health, compared with 30.7 percent of those bullied in the present only… 12.1 percent of those bullied in the past only…and 6.5 percent of those who had not been bullied…”

Bogart says the study stemmed from recent media attention on the issue, especially cases where kids have committed suicide after bullying. “There has been such a spotlight on bullying lately with not that much research showing the long-term effects,” she says. “So it seemed like we know bullying is a serious issue, but this is an opportunity to show just how serious this is.”

Bullying potentially impacts millions of kids in the U.S., although different studies show different numbers. In this study, 30 percent of children reported bullying in some form in a least one of the three grades, Bogart says.

“Bullying affects a substantial proportion of kids especially in the earlier grades and it also shows there is a really strong argument for immediate intervention before the effects of bullying get serious and linger over time,” she says.

Parents, teachers, health care providers and mental health professionals should look for signs and ask a child directly about bullying, she says. “A child might be depressed and not be bullied but if a child is suddenly depressed or suddenly not wanting to go to school or suddenly acting differently, it might be an opportunity for the parent or the health care provider to ask questions about bullying directly. There is a certain stigma to being bullied…Kids might be depressed but might not want to say that is the reason.” Kids who are obese, have a disability or are lesbian, gay, transgender or bisexual are more vulnerable to bullying, she says.

Many states have anti-bullying laws, but the effectiveness of interventions used in schools has not been studied, Bogart says. “What we need is future research to give more guidance to schools.”

By Rivkela Brodsky

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