Sunday, May 3, 2015

Bullying and Abuse

Social science research has made me question my assumptions once again. This time, a study published in Lancet Psychiatry found that bullying is more harmful in the long term than abuse at home.

...they mined two large, long-term studies involving thousands of children. Both studies included data about child abuse and bullying. They also had information about the kids’ mental health as teens and adults.

Among 4,026 children who participated in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in England, 8% were victims of child abuse only, 30% were victims of bullying only and 7% were exposed to both. For the 1,273 children who were part of the Great Smoky Mountains Study in North Carolina, 15% were victims of child abuse only, 16% were only bullied and 10% suffered both.

As they assessed the risks of mental health problems, the researchers controlled for gender, family instability or adversity, socioeconomic status and other factors that might influence the link between maltreatment and mental health. A history of child abuse was associated with a greater risk of mental health problems as an adult for the American children, but not for their English counterparts. However, children in both countries were more likely to have mental health problems if they had been bullied.

Overall, the effects of bullying were worse. For instance, the English children who were bullied were 70% more likely to experience depression or practice some form of self-harm than were children who suffered child abuse. The American children were nearly five times more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety if they were bullied than if they were abused. (Emphasis added.)
This fits with the idea that having a hard home life may be less of a factor in drug abuse than a feeling of not belonging with peers or in society as a whole (one of the points that seemed to underlie parts of Johan Hari's book Chasing the Scream, for instance).

I do wonder a bit about the causal relationship between the variables in the study, though. It's possible that kids who are likely to be bullied already have mental differences that mark them as different and lead to bullying, and then later result in mental illness. I don't have the background to form that into a coherent alternate hypothesis, but I wonder about it just a bit.

Given the results of this study, it's notable that the ACE score (Adverse Childhood Events) is based only on home-based events in a person's life. That seems like a pretty glaring omission.

1 comment:

Gina said...

I'd also wonder if the kids who were bullied were receiving the support from trusted adults that they needed, i.e. from parents, teachers, etc. Feeling abandoned by parents or teachers can exacerbate the effects of bullying. I think it's especially interesting that bullying was found to be more common that child abuse. I think both, if not addressed immediately in the child's life, can lead to emotional and psychological issues in adulthood.