Bullying victims ‘more likely to self harm’

New research finds that children who are bullied in childhood are up to three times more likely to self harm up by the age of 12. The study, from researchers at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) was published on bmj.com.

Approximately one quarter of all school-children in the UK are bullied at some point during their school lives. Victimisation is associated with a range of behavioural problems during adolescence, such as anxiety, depression, psychosis and conduct disorder, but few studies have tested the assumption that exposure to bullying increases the likelihood that a child will self-harm.

Dr Helen Fisher from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre at the IoP at King’s, and lead author of the research says: ‘This study clearly demonstrates that children who are bullied by peers are more likely to self-harm. The children who were most at risk were those who had previously been maltreated by someone else, who had underlying mental health problems, or a family history of suicide.’

The authors looked at more than 1,000 pairs of twins – born between 1994-1995 in England and Wales – at five, seven, 10 and 12-years-old. The children were assessed on the risks of self-harming in the six months prior to their 12th birthdays.

Data available for 2,141 individuals showed 237 children were victims of frequent bullying and, of that number, 18 (around 8%) self harmed. This involved cutting or biting arms, pulling out clumps of hair, a child banging its head against walls or attempting suicide. Of 1,904 children who were not bullied, 44 (2%) self harmed.

The research found marginally more girls (52%) than boys resorted to wounding themselves. It also showed bullied children with a family member who had either attempted or committed suicide were more likely to self harm than others.

The researchers also raised fears over the long-term implications of bullying which, they said, could result in psychological issues, serious injury or death. “This study adds to the growing literature showing that bullying during the early years of school can have extremely detrimental consequences for some children by the time they reach adolescence,” they wrote.

“This finding is even more concerning given that studies have suggested that early patterns of self harm can persist through adolescence into adulthood and increase the risk of later psychological problems. Therefore, such maladaptive coping strategies need to be tackled in childhood and early adolescence before they become a persistent problem or lead to serious injury or death.”

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