Child maltreatment encompasses everything from neglect to emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Despite a decades-long decline, it remains a real problem around the world. In the United States, about one in every 100 kids suffers neglect or abuse at some point. Those kids are in turn more likely to struggle in school and abuse drugs, and to be depressed and anxious as adults.
Yet bullying is more closely associated with mental health problems later in life, according to a report published yesterday in The Lancet Psychiatry and simultaneously presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies 2015 annual meeting.
“Our findings suggest that being bullied has similar and in some cases worse long-term adverse effects on young adults’ mental health than being maltreated,” write Tanya Lereya and professor Dieter Wolke of University of Warwick and Duke University professors William Copeland and Jane Costello. Yet governmental policy efforts have focused primarily on family maltreatment. “[T]his imbalance requires attention.”
That argument is based on the researchers’ analysis of both the the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in the United Kingdom, and the Great Smoky Mountains Study in the U.S. The two long-running surveys tracked abuse, neglect, and bullying in English and American children over the course of about a decade. The team followed up with 4,026 ALSPAC children at age 18, and 1,273 GSMS kids between the ages of 19 and 25, to assess anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
The results? Adjusting for factors like a person’s sex, socioeconomic status, and family troubles, the researchers found that kids who’d been bullied, but not abused or neglected by adults, were 1.8 (based on ALSPAC) to 4.7 (based on GSMS) times as likely to suffer some kind of mental illness as they grew up as kids who hadn’t been bullied by peers or abused or neglected by adults.
Mistreatment had little to no discernible effect on mental health later in life. ALSPAC data suggested childhood abuse and neglect had essentially no impact on young adults’ mental health, while GSMS data suggested only a 30 percent increase in rates of depression. “Maltreatment mainly had adverse effects on mental health problems when the children had also been bullied,” the team writes, though they note evidence that being victimized by a family member raises the probability of being bullied. Across all children they studied from both surveys, about 40 percent of mistreated kids had also been bullied, compared to just 24 percent of children who had not been mistreated by adults.
Taken together, those conclusions mean it’s time for government to take bullying more seriously than it already has, the researchers write. “It is important for schools, health services, and other agencies to coordinate their responses to bullying, and research is needed to assess such interagency policy and processes,” they argue.