Being bullied as an 8-year-old increases the risk of psychiatric diagnoses in adulthood including major depression, according to a recent large study conducted by Finnish and Israelian researchers.
The study is the “only one to our knowledge to assess bullying and exposure to bullying based on information from the children at 8 years of age and their parents and teachers,” Andre Sourander, MD, PHD, of the University of Turkey in Finland, and co-authors wrote in the study published Dec. 14 online in JAMA psychiatry.
While an increasing amount of evidence suggests bullying and exposure to bullying contribute to later mental health problems, “whether childhood bullying or exposure to bullying in the absence of childhood psychiatric symptoms is associated with psychiatric outcomes in adulthood remains unclear,” the co-authors wrote.
The researchers examined associations between bullying behavior at age 8 and adult psychiatric outcomes by age 29.
They gathered data from 5,034 Finnish children who were divided into four groups: those who never or only sometimes bully and are not exposed to bullying; those who frequently bully but are not exposed to bullying; those who were frequently only exposed to bullying; and those who frequently bully and are exposed to bullying.
Follow-up data were gathered from a nationwide hospital register when the children were between ages 16 and 29.
After adjustment for sex, parent education and family structure, children who were bullies, victims or both had an increased risk for any psychiatric diagnosis and at least double the risk of depression compared with children without any bullying exposure, according to the study.
In addition, those bullied were 1.9 times more likely to have a psychiatric disorder and 1.9 times more likely to have depression as adults, according to the study. Bully victims were 2.1 times more likely to have a psychiatric disorder, while the increased risk for psychiatric disorders in adulthood among bullies only occurred if psychiatric symptoms were present at age 8, according to the study. “Exposure to bullying, even in the absence of childhood psychiatric symptoms, is associated with severe adulthood psychiatric outcomes that require treatment in specialized services,” the co-authors wrote. “Early intervention among those involved in bullying can prevent long-term consequences.”
The main limitation to the study is the lack of understanding on how bullying exposure might lead to psychiatric disorders, according to the co-authors. The study also did not address bystanders to bullying, assess the type of bullying that occurred or account for factors such as “parenting style, family functioning and biological, genetic and other environmental factors,” the co-authors wrote.
“Future studies containing more nuanced information about the mediating factors that occur between childhood bullying and adulthood disorders will be needed to shed light on this important question,” the co-authors wrote.
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