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Bullied children three times 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 today on 

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 carried out a study on just over a 1000 pairs of twins at five, seven, 10 and 12 years of age. All children were born in 1994-1995 in England and Wales. They assessed the risks of these 2141 children self-harming in the six months prior to their 12th birthday. 

The researchers studied twins, allowing them to rule out other factors which might explain the link. In twins within the same family, the twin who had been bullied was more likely to self-harm than their non-bullied sibling, suggesting the link between bullying and self-harm is independent of all other factors that siblings share, such as their parents and home family life.

237 children were victims of frequent bullying and 18 (8%) of them self harmed. Of the 1904 who had not been bullied, 44 (2 %) had self harmed.  Amongst those who had been bullied, self-harm was more likely if the child had also been maltreated, had mental health problems and / or had a family history of attempted suicide. And although the likelihood was slightly higher for girls (1.6%), the association was evident amongst both sexes. 

Bullying was defined as when another child: says mean or hurtful things; completely ignores or excludes the victim; hits, kicks or shoves the victim; tells lies or spreads rumours and / or does other hurtful things, all on a frequent basis. Examples of self-harm included: cutting and biting arms; pulling out clumps of hair; banging head against walls; attempted suicides by strangulation.

Dr Fisher adds: ‘More effective programmes to prevent bullying from happening are required, but there is also a clear need for more opportunities to help children cope with emotional distress arising from bullying. We hope that parents, teachers and doctors will be able to use this evidence to help identify children at risk of self-harming.’

Professor Terrie Moffitt, Dr Louise Arsenault and Professor Avshalom Caspi from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London also contributed to this research. 

The E-Risk Study is funded by the Medical Research Council. Additional support was provided by the Economic and Social Research Council, the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the US National Institute of Mental Health, British Academy, Nuffield Foundation and the Jacobs Foundation. Dr Fisher is funded by and MRC Population Health Scientist fellowship.  

For full paper: Fisher, H.L. et al. ‘Bully victimisation and risk of self harm in early adolescence: longitudinal cohort study’ BMJ (April 2012) doi: 10.1136/bmj.e2683

For more information, please contact Seil Collins, Press Office, Institute of Psychiatry, email: tel: 0207 848 5377.