Taking a stand against bullying: Addressing mental health problems from within

by Louise Arseneault

Many people have childhood memories of being pushed around and being punched by other pupils when we felt you couldn’t retaliate. They may also remember being the topic of nasty rumours or being excluded by others. Unfortunately, being bullied is not an unusual experience, even today.

Similar to maltreatment, bullying involves abusive behaviours where it is more difficult for the victims to defend themselves. But in contrast to maltreatment, these abusive behaviours are perpetrated by others of the same age. The research I have been conducting for the past 15 years – alongside great collaborators – emphasises the importance of moving away from the common perception that bullying is a just an unavoidable part of growing up.

Alongside a great team from the Policy Institute at King’s, I recently hosted a ‘policy lab’ with a diverse group of practitioners, researchers, policymakers and advocates, to address the question: Is it valuable, feasible and acceptable to strengthen interventions focusing on victims and potential victims of bullying in order to reduce and prevent mental health problems?

Research suggests that being bullied is a social experience that contributes to emotional problems at an early age

We studied the effect of being bullied in childhood in a longitudinal cohort of young twins born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1995, the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study. Our findings indicate that children who were victims of bullying in their first two years of formal schooling have increased symptoms of emotional problems, anxiety and depression; and this is despite taking into account their difficulties prior to being bullied.

Our research also showed that bullying has an impact on children’s development, over and above their genetic propensity to being bullied and to developing mental health problems. We examined pairs of monozygotic (identical) twins where one twin had been bullied, and the other had not. The twins who had been bullied showed higher levels of emotional problems compared to their co-twins; even after accounting for their emotional problems prior to being bullied. Because monozygotic twins are genetically identical, and in this case grew up in the same family, genes and shared environmental factors cannot account for the differences in emotional problems between these two groups.

bullying group sketch

Research supports initiatives aimed at stopping bullying behaviours in schools

If we reduce bullying behaviour, we increase our chances of limiting suffering and ensuing mental health problems among young children. However, research also shows that interventions will not eradicate bullying. So, what about those children who do not escape bullying? Can we be hopeful that their difficulties will disappear once the bullying has come to the attention of parents or school staff and has stopped?

To answer this question, we turned to another longitudinal cohort of people who were born in Britain in one week in 1958, the National Child Development Study (NCDS). This cohort also collected prospective measures of bullying victimisation and mental health outcomes, 40 later.

Our findings indicate that participants who were bullied in childhood, and especially those who were frequently bullied, had increased rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts at mid-life. These associations remain after controlling for childhood IQ, parental socioeconomic status, child neglect and other forms of adversity, and also for emotional and behavioural problems in childhood.

Those participants who were bullied in childhood not only had increased rates of psychiatric problems in adulthood, they were less educated at mid-life, and they were less likely to be living with a partner and to have a good social network of friends when they reached 50 years of age.

These findings have also been replicated by other longitudinal studies and together, they show that mental health problems among young victims can persist even once bullying at school has stopped.

Research shows that we must support victims of bullying to limit the harm associated with being bullied from a young age

Research has identified sets of factors, individual and contextual, that make some young people more likely to be targeted by bullying behaviours.

Studies indicate that being the target of bullying is not just about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Children who show early symptoms of mental health problems, children from deprived backgrounds and poor neighbourhoods, and children who are already victims of abuse at home at the hands of an adult, are at risk of experiencing bullying. But despite their vulnerability to develop mental health problems in the first place, young victims of bullying have worse outcomes later in life because they were bullied.

Research suggests that if we equip ‘at-risk’ children with the right tools and social skills, we may reduce bullying and mental health problems in schools

LA blog

Participants at the policy lab came to the consensus that there is potential to strengthen interventions that support victims and potential victims in parallel with existing programs to stop bullying.

We identified a set of principles to guide the implementation of interventions which aim to reduce and prevent mental health problems by focusing on victims and potential victims of bullying.

Read the full policy lab report to find out more.

Louise Arseneault 150pxLouise Arseneault is Professor of Developmental Psychology at King’s College London. In 2016 Louise was appointed ESRC Mental Health Leadership Fellow; championing the role of the social sciences within mental health research.

In spring 2018, Louise was elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences.

Learn more about ESRC’s commitment to mental health research on the ESRC website.

You can follow @L_Arseneault and #LetsTalkMentalHealth on Twitter.

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