Have you ever been nastily teased or bullied in the playground? If yes, then you’ll certainly remember how it made you feel. Now a new study has found that bullying is as harmful as abuse. And in certain cases, it’s even worse than abuse.

Dieter Wolke from the University of Warwick undertook the research in which over 4,000 children in the UK and US were studied. The researchers measured rates of maltreatment – assessed as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or harsh discipline – and bullying – identified as repetitive aggressive behaviour by someone in their peer group with more power – through interviews of children & their parents. Afterwards the team assessed children for mental health problems when they turned 18.

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Researchers found clear link of maltreatment with depression in UK group, but in US group no such thing was seen. Nonetheless, bullying had a clear link with mental health problems for children in both groups. Researchers then calculated the odds of developing mental health problems linked to maltreatment and the odds linked to bullying. They found bullied children were almost five times more likely to experience anxiety and almost twice as likely to report depression and self-harm at age 18, than maltreated children

Digging Deeper

It is hard to say whether or not researchers captured the true rates of maltreatment because in many cases, they relied on parents admitting child abuse. Missing out rates of maltreatment meant findings linked to maltreatment were likely to reflect an inaccurate picture. But even if rates of maltreatment were missed out, the findings linking bullying to mental health problems remain.

The team also studied the relationship between bullying and mental health while considering other factors such as family hardship and the mental health of mothers. The harmful effects of bullying continued to exist even when controlling for these other factors, thus proving their conclusions right.

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However, the investigators did not evaluate all critical factors that could explain the link between bullying and mental health problems. Childhood speech and language problems, for instance, which were not evaluated, have a clear link with peer bullying in childhood and anxiety disorders in adulthood.

Joe Beitchman and his team did a study at the University of Toronto in which they followed children for 14 years. The team found that speech and language problems at the age of five had a clear link with anxiety problems in young adulthood. A common anxiety problem in adulthood was social anxiety disorder.

Lasting Damage

In my own clinical practice, I often treat people who have problems like social anxiety. Occasionally my clients have a history of maltreatment and bullying, but mostly they have a history of bullying. Bullying is seen to rupture healthy self-esteem, replacing positive beliefs about oneself with beliefs linked to shame, disgust and criticism.

If a kid is teased for an aspect of their appearance, they may start believing they look distorted and ugly. When they look in the mirror they may in fact see an image of themselves encapsulating the names that bullies call them. That may lead to dysmorphic disorder, an anxiety disorder that causes people to have a distorted view of their appearance and they spend a lot of their time worrying about it.

However, past bullying is mainly linked to social anxiety disorder. People who have social anxiety disorder are scared of socialising with others, fearing harsh evaluation and rejection. They tend to underachieve at school and at work and are more likely to have depression, as well as are at risk of early death by suicide.

Social anxiety disorder often begins around the time bullying begins in childhood. People with this disorder recover as adults when in the course of treatment their bullying is re-visited. The therapist assists the client to alter the meaning of bullying so that it is no longer seen as a sign of weakness instead, as evidence confirming the weakness of the bullies. Furthermore, clients learn to recondition their negative images with realistic images of how they actually come across to other people.

Preventing Bullying

Knowing how bullying leads to poor mental health is not as important as preventing bullying. There’s a need of zero tolerance programmes, besides, government recommendations need to be implemented in every school – and monitored.

I advise that as part of the nationwide curriculum, students need to be taught how to spot the signs of bullying in themselves and others. Classroom discussions regarding the effects of bullying would also aid in raising awareness among children.

Children who bully by habit need to learn positive communication skills as well as the way to handle their difficult feelings. Parenting classes or interventions that teach parents how to manage their own difficult feelings, is a great technique worth trying.

Making it easy for kids to report bullying at schools, and access to immediate help, can be helpful. GPs need to routinely ask about bullying when children visit the surgery. In order to prevent the linked mental health problems from developing teachers, health professionals, parents and children need to work together, to identify the signs and symptoms of bullying and stop it.