You probably know someone who was bullied or is being bullied at school.
I was and, even years later, it continues to affect my life. It’s usually in small ways, but those small things add up. Social situations make me anxious. Seeing groups of people on the street returns me to the school playground where I’d turn inward and make myself as small as possible to avoid torment. I can’t use changing facilities at gyms for fear that, like then, I might be cornered by groups of young men, and for a number of years public restrooms filled me with dread after one particularly unpleasant bullying episode that left me stained in my own urine and desperately, awfully ashamed.
That’s why I’m not particularly surprised that research has revealed school bullying has lasting effects that can continue into midlife and possibly beyond. The research, which appears as part of the British National Child Development Study and is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry this month, saw researchers follow the lives of nearly 8,000 children who were born in 1958, many of whom said the had experienced bullying between the ages of seven and 11. More than 25 percent of that sample said they’d experienced occasional bullying, while about 15 percent said they’d experienced frequent bullying. That, the researchers say, is roughly analogous to the numbers among today’s children.
Following participants into midlife (aged 50), the researchers then tested for evidence of the known effects of bullying at regular intervals throughout the subjects’ lives, and participants were tested for psychological distress as well as their general health, with tests at 23 and 45. At age 50, participants were also tested in terms of cognitive functioning, social relationships, as well as for general levels of well-being (these were assessed using standard scales).
What the researchers found was that, even after accounting for things like IQ and socioeconomic status at the beginning of the study, bullying appears to have a significant impact on people’s lives for decades after the bullying has finished. Here are some highlights from the research:
1. Bullying Victims are More Likely to Suffer Depression, Anxiety Disorders and Suicidal Thoughts
The research found that those who were bullied were almost twice as likely to suffer from depression when compared to those who weren’t bullied, and by age 45 those who were frequently bullied were more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders and suicidal thoughts.
2. Bullying Makes People More Likely to Have Poorer Physical Health
The researchers found that people who were bullied were more likely to have lower overall physical fitness, something that also tallies with depression rates.
The researchers also found that by age 50, bullying victims were far more likely to show reduced cognitive function. The study couldn’t say why this might be. Previous research has shown that childhood abuse can lead to similar problems in later years, or it could be (and there is some evidence to support this) that severe stress at a young age causes premature aging and, as a result, earlier mental decline.
3. Bullying Makes People More Likely to Have Lower Education and Employment Levels
The researchers found that those who reported being bullied were less likely to seek higher education. By age 50, men in particular were also less likely to be in employment and if they were in a job, tended to earn less than their non-bullied peers.
4. Victims of Bullying are Less Likely to Have Close Friendships or a Long Term Partner
Perhaps it’s not surprising that bullying would affect a person’s relationships, but its significant impact may shock you. Firstly, people who reported having experienced bullying were far less likely to be in a long term romantic relationship by the age of 50. They were also less likely to meet up with friends, and felt they were less able to rely on friends in case they fell ill. That may add up to a social life that is severely lacking in support, something that can add to depression and anxiety.
5. Bullying Victims Don’t Believe Life Gets Better
Perhaps most heart-breaking of all, bullying victims were found to be less likely to believe that their situation could improve or have a positive outlook when it came to their future.
The researchers aren’t sure why it is that bullying can have such profound affects on us even into later life. One theory is that those early bullying experiences conditions those who are bullied into cycles of victimization that means that when confronted with bullying behavior in later life they are less able to stand up for themselves.
Another theory, with some evidence to support it, is that bullying actually creates physical changes within us, even that it alters our body chemistry to make us more susceptible to depression and anxiety.
The researchers next want to find out what might reduce or increase the impact of bullying throughout a lifetime, for instance what life events might reduce the problems bullying creates. Could, for instance, a very supportive family help to ease these symptoms?
In the short-term, however, researchers stress that early intervention is key to helping prevent bullying from ruining lives. Perhaps even more crucially, we mist disabuse ourselves of the notion that bullying is simply something we have to go through, with senior author of the study Professor Louise Arseneault perhaps saying it best:
“Teachers, parents and policy-makers should be aware that what happens in the school playground can have long-term repercussions for children. Programs to stop bullying are extremely important, but we also need to focus our efforts on early intervention to prevent potential problems persisting into adolescence and adulthood.”
For those who are being bullied, perhaps the main thing to take away from this is that if you speak out about the bullying you face, there is no reason that the outcomes described in this study have to be the life you map out for yourself. There are plenty of people, myself included, who while hampered by those experiences, have managed to overcome them and are living happy lives.
For more information or support to deal with bullying, please click here.
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