In movies and TV shows, there’s the classic trope of the bully and the bullied. The bully stuffs his or her victim into lockers, trips them in the hallways, makes fun of their appearance, and laughs at them in front of the whole class—whatever it takes to guarantee utmost embarrassment. While these displays are supposed to be funny to watch on screen (where the bullied comes out victorious in the end), bullying is actually a major problem in schools that can lead to even bigger issues down the road, like mental illness—but how far down the road? A new UCL-led study “Concurrent and Longitudinal Contribution of Exposure to Bullying in Childhood to Mental Health: The Role of Vulnerability and Resilience” found that bullying can causes mental health issues (such as depression or anxiety) years later, but that the effects decrease over time.

In order to better understand the link between being bullied and developing mental health issues, the research team surveyed 11,108 participants from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) at King’s College London. Targeting twins allowed the researchers to account for the confounding effects of their genetic factors and shared environmental factors, as they studied identical twins (who have matching genes and home environments) and fraternal twins (who don’t share all of the same genes, but have the same home environments). These participants and their parents answered questions about peer victimization when the kids were 11 and 14 years, and about mental health difficulties when the kids were 11 and 16 years.

The researchers found that “effect sizes were stronger before controlling for shared environmental factors and genetics,” which showed that bullying alone is just part of the reason mental illness develops in children who are bullied. Furthermore, they found that once the confounding factors (shared environmental factors and genetics) were taken out of the equation, there was still an obvious link between being bullied and the development of anxiety, depression, inattention, hyperactivity, and conduct problems. Two years later, only the impact on anxiety remained, and five years later, there were no signs of impact on the aforementioned developments. However, 16-year-olds who were bullied at 11 years were more likely to be paranoid.

“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,” says the study’s lead author Dr. Jean-Baptists Pingault. “Bullying certainly causes suffering, but the impact on mental health decreases over time, so children are able to recover in the medium term.”

This study shows that the severity of the effects bullying has on mental health decrease over time, but it does not undermine the fact that bullying is a big issue with detrimental effects. “The detrimental effects of bullying show that more needs to be done to help children who are bullied. 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 children and adolescents,” explains Pingault.

Source: UCL “Anxiety and Depression Caused by Childhood Bullying Decline Over Time.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 4 October 2017.

Original Research:
Full open access research for “Concurrent and Longitudinal Contribution of Exposure to Bullying in Childhood to Mental Health: The Role of Vulnerability and Resilience” by Timothy Singham, BSc; Essi Viding, PhD; Tabea Schoeler, PhD; Louise Arseneault, PhD; Angelica Ronald, PhD; Charlotte M. Cecil, PhD; Eamon McCrory, PhD; Frülhing Rijsdijk, PhD; and Jean-Baptiste Pingault, PhD in JAMA Psychiatry. Published online October 4 2017 doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.2678