January 15, 2018
2 min read

Bullying in childhood heightens risk for mental health problems in adolescence

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Data from a longitudinal, 18-year follow-up study shows that peer victimization in childhood increased the risk for experiencing suicidal thoughts, anxiety problems and depressive symptoms in adolescence.

“There is a gap in scientific knowledge, because no study has captured the development of victimization from the beginning of the school years to the transition to high school while documenting its impact on impairment associated with mental health problems,” Marie-Calude Geoffroy, PhD, from the department of psychiatry at McGill University, and colleagues wrote in CMAJ. “This is an important period in the life course, because social relationships are developing (ie, laying the foundation for future relationships), peer victimization is at its highest rate, and mental health problems are emerging.”

Researchers used data from 1,363 Canadian youths who were participants of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development and self-reported victimization from age 6 to 13 years. The participants were born in 1997 and 1998 and followed until age 15 years. Researchers evaluated whether being bullied during childhood was linked to mental health outcomes in adolescence. They categorized participants into none/low, moderate and severe victimization groups. Participants completed assessments on frequency of depression and dysthymia problems, general anxiety problems, social anxiety problems, eating problems, oppositional or defiance problems and conduct problems.

Overall, 26.2% of participants experienced little bullying in childhood, 59.3% experienced moderate bullying and 14.5% experienced severe bullying. Analysis showed that those who were severely victimized were almost 3.5 times more likely to report serious suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts compared with those who experienced no/low bullying. After examining data independent of comorbid mental health problems linked to victimization, researchers found that adolescents who reported severe victimization were at higher risk for suicidal ideation or attempted suicide (OR = 2.76; 95% CI, 1.16-6.54). After adjusting for confounders, the most severely victimized youths were more likely to report depressive or dysthymic symptoms (OR = 2.56; 95% CI, 1.27-5.17), generalized anxiety problems (OR = 3.27; 95% CI, 1.64-6.51) and suicidal thoughts or behaviors (OR = 3.46; 95% CI, 1.53-7.81) at age 15 years compared with those who experienced little bullying. Furthermore, the relationship with suicidality remained significant after controlling for simultaneous symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“Although peer victimization starts to decrease by the end of childhood, individuals in the severe trajectory group were still being exposed to the highest level of victimization in early adolescence,” Geoffroy and colleagues wrote. “Therefore, antibullying interventions should begin before enrollment in the formal school system. Experimental studies aimed at preventing victimization would provide information about both the efficacy of preventive measures and the potentially causal role of victimization. – by Savannah Demko

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.