Effects of Childhood Bullying Persist Far Into Midlife

ARLINGTON, Va. — A five decade-long nationwide study reveals that the impact of being bullied in childhood persists up to mid-life. The harmful effects extend beyond psychological distress to lower levels of education, physical and cognitive health problems, and poor social functioning.

Participants who were bullied frequently as children had higher rates of anxiety and suicidal thoughts or plans at age 45, compared to those who were not bullied. They were less likely to be living with a partner, were more isolated, and had lower levels of life satisfaction so far and anticipated for the future.

Even those bullied occasionally were more likely than those who were not bullied to have psychological distress or depression at midlife. They also had poorer cognitive functioning, general health, social support, and quality of life.

These findings from the British National Child Development Study will be published online by The American Journal of Psychiatry (AJP) at AJP in Advance, its online-ahead-of-print website. The National Child Development Study followed the lives of all children born in England, Scotland, and Wales during one week in 1958. This study was based on more than 7,700 participants with information on bullying in childhood (between ages 7 and 11) and psychological distress at ages 23 and 50.

Senior investigator Louise Arseneault, PhD, King’s College London, points out that although the effects were relatively small, they were similar to the effect of being placed in foster care or being exposed to multiple childhood adversities, and that they were independent of IQ, social class, and other childhood conditions that might have been related to worse outcomes in adulthood.

According to Arseneault, “It is striking that forty years after having been bullied in childhood, individuals continue to show persistent and pervasive negative outcomes, including poor mental, physical, and cognitive health. ”

It is unlikely that bullying operates in isolation to create such lifelong adversities, and we need to understand the impact of bullying in the context of other forms of childhood abuse and identify pathways leading to poor adult outcomes.”

Researchers were funded by the British Academy. Other funding the authors have received is presented in the article itself.

The American Journal of Psychiatry is the official journal of the American Psychiatric Association, a national medical specialty society whose physician members specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and research of mental illnesses including substance use disorders. Visit the APA at www.psychiatry.org and www.psychiatry.org/mental-health.

 

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