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Bullying causes mental health issues, but they can be overcome

A new study led by University College London has produced powerful evidence that exposure to bullying triggers mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The researchers also discovered, however, that these negative impacts of bullying diminish over time.

“While our findings show that being bullied leads to detrimental mental health outcomes, they also offer a message of hope by highlighting the potential for resilience,” said lead author Dr. Jean-Baptiste Pingault. “Bullying certainly causes suffering, but the impact on mental health decreases over time, so children are able to recover in the medium term.”

The analysis was focused on over 11,000 participants from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) at King’s College London. Twins made the ideal subjects for the researchers to control for shared environment and genetic factors. At ages 11 and 14, both children and parents reported on peer victimization, and at ages 11 and 16 they reported about mental health difficulties.

The researchers found that exposure to bullying contributed to concurrent anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and impulsivity, inattention, and conduct problems. They also established that the impact on anxiety persisted two year later. By five years later, on the other hand, there was no longer an effect on any of those mental health outcomes.

“The detrimental effects of bullying show that more needs to be done to help children who are bullied,” said Dr. Pingault. “In addition to interventions aimed at stopping bullying from happening, we should also support children who have been bullied by supporting resilience processes on their path to recovery. Our findings highlight the importance of continuous support to mental health care for children and adolescents.”

Co-author Dr Sophie Dix pointed out that at least 1 in 5 young people in the United Kingdom report that they have recently been bullied.

“This unprecedented study gives the strongest evidence to date that bullying can directly cause many common mental health conditions – and have a serious effect on mental health in the long-term,” said Dr. Dix. “But the good news is that it shows that people can and do get better – demonstrating the importance of resilience. Now we need to understand why this is and develop new ways, through research, to intervene and change lives.”

The study is published today in JAMA Psychiatry.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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