Children who are repeatedly bullied are twice as likely to have psychotic symptoms as children who aren’t abused. And the more they’re victimized, the more likely they are to have psychiatric problems.
This may sound like just more depressing news for kids who are victims of bullying, but there’s also a ray of hope. Mental-health experts increasingly think many serious mental problems can be prevented if children are given appropriate help. So if parents realize early on that their child is being bullied, intervention may help stave off lifelong trouble.
Researchers in England asked 6,437 children about bullying and psychiatric symptoms when they were turning 13. Since age 7, the children had been part of a study in which they were interviewed and took psychological and physical tests. The researchers found that children who were bullied repeatedly between ages 8 and 10 were more likely to have psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, or thought disorders.
This may be because of the stress and abuse of bullying. Or it could be that children who are already predisposed to have mental-health problems are more likely to be bullied. The authors of the report, published in the May Archives of General Psychiatry, say that children who are bullied often are “more withdrawn, unassertive, physically weaker, or easily emotionally upset.” The researchers tried to control for family history of mental illness, and they believe that bullying increases the risk of psychotic symptoms, whether a child is predisposed to mental illness or not.
How can you tell if your child is being bullied? Here are five key ways children are bullied:
- Having property taken.
- Being threatened or blackmailed.
- Being hit or beaten up.
- Being tricked.
- Being called nasty names.
Bullies also use social relationships to inflict pain. They may:
- Refuse to play with their victims.
- Try to force them to do something they don’t want to do, like be mean to other kids.
- Tell lies or spread rumors about them.
- Socially exclude them or spoil games to upset them.
Importance of timely invention. Earlier this year, the Institute of Medicine released one of its voluminous reports, this one with a startling finding: Many serious mental problems can be prevented if children’s behavioral issues are treated early on. Many of the interventions, such as a “good behavior game” for grade schoolers, are simple and inexpensive.
Early intervention would make a huge difference for children who are bullied, too, according to the authors of the Archives article. Bullying has adverse long-term health consequences, they say, and reducing bullying and its stress could go a long way toward preventing common mental-health problems like depression, as well as psychosis.
It’s often hard to find good mental-health care for kids, but the new federal mental-health parity laws should help. Start with your pediatrician; say you’re seriously worried about your child being bullied and need a mental-health referral, stat. Community mental-health clinics and local universities can be good sources of care, too. It's time to fight back against bullies—this time with some quality healthcare.