For the study, Dieter Wolke, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Warwick, UK, and colleagues analyzed data on maltreatment, bullying, and overall mental health from two longitudinal studies—the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) in the United Kingdom (ALSPAC) and Great Smoky Mountains Study (GSMS) in the United States.
The study included 4,026 children from ALSPAC—whose parents provided information about their exposure to maltreatment (defined as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, or severe maladaptive parenting, or both) between the ages 8 weeks and 8.6 years; exposure to bullying was assessed during conversations with the children at ages 8, 10, and 13—and 1,420 children from GSMS, who reported information on maltreatment and bullying between the ages of 9 and 16. Symptoms of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicidality were measured at age 18.
Of the 4,026 children in the ALSPAC cohort, 341 (8 percent) were exposed to only maltreatment, 1,197 (30 percent) were exposed to only bullying, and 283 (7 percent) were exposed to both maltreatment and bullying. As adults, 402 (10 percent) were classified as having anxiety, 316 (8 percent) as having depression, and 361 (9 percent) as having reported self-harm in the past year. A total of 207 (15 percent) in the GSMS cohort were exposed to only maltreatment, 225 (16 percent) to only bullying, and 159 (10 percent) to both maltreatment and bullying. As adults, 135 (12 percent) were classified as having anxiety, 87 (6 percent) as having depression, and 64 (7 percent) as having reported self-harm in the past year.
After adjusting for potential confounders, the authors reported that being bullied only was a higher risk for overall mental health problems than was being maltreated only in both cohorts (OR 1.6 [95% CI 1.1–2.2] for ALSPAC; 3.8 [1.8–7.9] for GSMS). Children who were bullied were more likely to have anxiety (4.9 [2.0–12.0] for GSMS), depression (1.7 [1.1–2.7] for ALSPAC) and self-harm (1.7 [1.1–2.6] for ALSPAC) as adults than children who were maltreated by adults.
While governmental efforts have focused almost exclusively on public policy to address family maltreatment, less attention and resources have been directed at addressing bullying, the study authors note. “Since bullying is frequent and found in all social groups, and current evidence supports that bullied children have similar or worse long-term mental health outcomes than maltreatment, this imbalance requires attention,” they write.
For more on the long-term effects of bullying, see the Psychiatric News article, “Effects of Bullying Don’t End When School Does.”
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